Simone Unverdorben, The False Martyr

Article by guestblogger La cara Pasifae

A little boy went out to play.
When he opened his door he saw the world.
As he passed through the doorway he caused a riflection.
Evil was born!
Evil was born and followed the boy.

(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)

It was a nice late-summer afternoon, in 2013. I remember well.
A friend had invited me to the opening of his latest exhibition. He had picked an unusual place for the event: an ancient and isolated parish church that stood high up on a hill, the church of Nanto. The building had been recently renovated, and it was open to the public only on specific occasions.
Once there, one immediately feels the urge to look around. The view is beautiful, but it pays the price of the impact the construction industry (I was almost about to say “architecture”) has had on the surroundings, with many industrial buildings covering the lanscapes of Veneto region like a tattoo. Better go inside and look at the paintings.

I was early for the opening, so I had the artist, his works and the entire exhibition area all for myself. I could walk and look around without any hurry, and yet I felt something disturbing my peace, something I couldn’t quite pin down at first:  it kind of wormed its way into my visual field, calling for attention. On a wall, as I was passing from one painted canvas to the next, I eventually spotted a sudden, indefinite blur of colors. A fresco. An image had been resting there well before the exhibition paintings were placed in front of it!

Despite the restoration, as it happens with many medieval and Renaissance frescoes, some elements were still confused and showed vanishing, vaporous outlines. But once in focus, an unsettling vision emerged: the fresco depicted a quite singular torture scene, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other artwork (but I wouldn’t want to pass as an expert on the subject).
Two female figures, standing on either side, were holding the arms of a blonde child (a young Christ, a child-saint, or a puer sacer, a sacred and mystical infant, I really couldn’t say). The kid was being tortured by two young men: each holding a stiletto, they were slicing the boy’s skin all over, and even his face seemed to have been especially brutalized.


Blood ran down the child’s bound feet into a receiving bowl, which had been specifically placed under the victim’s tormented limbs.

The child’s swollen face (the only one still clearly visible) had an ecstatic expression that barely managed to balance the horror of the hemorrhage and of the entire scene: in the background, a sixth male figure sporting a remarkable beard, was twisting a cloth band around the prisoner throat. The baby was being choked to death!

What is the story of this fresco? What tale does it really tell?
The five actors do not look like peasants; the instruments are not randomly chosen: these are thin, sharp, professional blades. The incisions on the victim’s body are too regular. Who perpetrated this hideous murder, who was the object of the resentment the author intended to elicit in the onlookers? Maybe the fresco was a representation — albeit dramatic and exaggerated — of a true crime. Should the choking, flaying and bleeding be seen as a metaphor for some parasitic exploitation, or do they hint at some rich and eccentric nobleman’s quirkiness? Is this a political allegory or a Sadeian chronicle?
The halo surrounding the child’s head makes him an innocent or a saved soul. Was this a homage, a flattering detail to exhalt the commissioner of this work of art? What character was meant to be celebrated here, the subjects on the sides who are carrying out a dreadful, but unavoidable task, or the boy at the center who looks so obscenely resigned to suffer their painful deeds? Are we looking at five emissaries of some brutal but rational justice as they perform their duties, or the misadventure of a helpless soul that fell in the hands of a ferocious gang of thugs?

At the bottom of the fresco, a date: «ADI ⋅ 3 ⋅ APRILE 1479».
This historical detail brought me back to the present. The church was already crowded with people.
I felt somehow crushed by the overload of arcane symbols, and the frustation of not having the adequate knowledge to interpret what I had seen. I furtively took a snapshot. I gave my host a warm farewell, and then got out, hoping the key to unlock the meaning of the fresco was not irretrievably lost in time.

As I discovered at the beginning of my research on this controversial product of popular iconography, the fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Simonino of Trent. Simone Unverdorben, a two-year-old toddler from Trent, disappeared on March 23, 1475. His body was found on Easter Day. It was said to have been mauled and strangled. In Northern Italy, in those years, antisemitic abuses and persecutions stemmed from the widely influential sermons of the clergy. The guilt for the heinous crime immediately fell upon the Trent Jewish community. All of its members had to endure one of the biggest trials of the time, being subjected to tortures that led to confessions and reciprocal accusations.

During the preliminary investigations of the Trent trial, a converted Jew was asked if the practice of ritual homicide of Christian toddlers existed within the Hebrew cult. […] The converted Jew, at the end of the questioning, confirmed with abundant details the practice of ritual sacrifice in the Jewish Easter liturgy.
Another testimony emerged from the interrogation of another of the alleged killers of the little Simone, the Jewish physician Tobia. He declared on the rack there was a commerce in Christian blood among Jews. A Jewish merchant called Abraam was said to have left Trent shortly before Simone’s death with the intention of selling Christian blood, headed to Feltre or Bassano, and to have asked around which of the two cities was closer to Trent. Tobia’s confession took place under the terrifying threat of being tortured and in the desperate attempt to avoid it: he therefore had to be cooperative to the point of fabrication; but it was understood that his testimony, whenever made up, should be consistent and plausible.
[…] Among the others, another converted man named Israele (Wolfgang, after converting) was  also interrogated under torture. He declared he had heard about other cases of ritual murders […]. These instances of ritual homicides were inventions whose protagonists had names that came from the interrogee’s memory, borrowed to crowd these fictional stories in a credible way.

(M. Melchiorre, Gli ebrei a Feltre nel Quattrocento. Una storia rimossa,
in Ebrei nella Terraferma veneta del Quattrocento,
a cura di G.M. Varanini e R.C. Mueller, Firenze University Press 2005)

Many were burned at the stake. The survivors were exiled from the city, after their possessions had been confiscated.
According to the jury, the child’s collected blood had been used in the ritual celebration of the “Jewish Easter”.

The facts we accurately extracted from the offenders, as recorded in the original trials, are the following. The wicked Jews living in Trent, having maliciously planned to make their Easter solemn through the killing of a Christian child, whose blood they could mix in their unleavened bread, commisioned it to Tobia, who was deemed perfect for the infamous deed as he was familiar with the town on the account of being a professional doctor. He went out at 10 pm on Holy Thursday, March 23, as all believers were at the Mass, walked the streets and alleys of the city and having spotted the innocent Simone all alone on his father’s front door, he showed him a big silver piece, and with sweet words and smiles he took him from via del Fossato, where his parents lived, to the house of the rich Jew Samuele, who was eagerly waiting for him. There he was kept, with charms and apples, until the hour of the sacrifice arrived. At 1 am, little twenty-nine-months-old Simone was taken to the chamber adjoining the women’s synagogue; he was stripped naked and a band or belt was made from his clothes, and he was muzzled with a handkerchief, so that he wouldn’t immediately choke to death nor be heard; Moses the Elder, sitting on a stall and holding the baby in his lap, tore a piece of flesh off his cheek with a pair of iron pliers. Samuele did the same while Tobia, assisted by Moar, Bonaventura, Israele, Vitale and another Bonaventura (Samuele’s cook) collected in a basin the blood pouring from the wound. After that, Samuele and the aforementioned seven Jews vied with each other to pierce the flesh of the holy martyr, declaring in Hebrew that they were doing so to mock the crucified God of the Christians; and they added: thus shall be the fate of all our enemies. After this feral ordeal, the old Moses took a knife and pierced with it the tip of the penis, and with the pliers tore a chunk of meat from the little right leg and Samuel, who replaced him, tore a piece out of the other leg. The copious blood oozing from the puerile penis was harvested in a different vase, while the blood pouring from the legs was collected in the basin. All the while, the cloth plugging his mouth was sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened; not satisfied with the outrageous massacre, they insisted in the same torture a second time, with greater cruelty, piercing him everywhere with pins and needles; until the young boy’s blessed soul departed his body, among the rejoicing of this insane riffraff.

(Annali del principato ecclesiastico di Trento dal 1022 al 1540, pp. 352-353)

Very soon Simonino (“little Simone”) was acclaimed as a “blessed martyr”, and his cult spread thoughout Northern Italy. As devotion grew wider, so did the production of paintings, ex voto, sculptures, bas reliefs, altar decorations.

Polichrome woodcut, Daniel Mauch’s workshop, Museo Diocesano Tridentino.

Questionable elements, taken from folktales and popular belief, began to merge with an already established, sterotyped antisemitism.

 

From Alto Adige, April 1, 2017.

Despite the fact that the Pope had forbidden the cult, pilgrims kept flocking. The fame of the “saint” ‘s miracles grew, together with a wave of antisemitism. The fight against usury led to the accusation of loan-sharking, extended to all Jews. The following century, Pope Sistus V granted a formal beatification. The cult of Saint Simonino of Trent further solidified. The child’s embalmed body was exhibited in Trent until 1955, together with the alleged relics of the instruments of torture.

In reality, Simone Unverdorben (or Unferdorben) was found dead in a water canal belonging to a town merchant, near a Jewish man’s home, probably a moneylender. If he wasn’t victim of a killer, who misdirected the suspects on the easy scapegoat of the Jewish community, the child might have fallen in the canal and drowned. Rats could have been responsible for the mutilations. In the Nineteenth Century, accurate investigations proved the ritual homicide theory wrong. In 1965, five centuries after the murder, the Church abolished  the worship of Saint “Martyr” Simonino for good.

A violent fury against the very portraits of the “torturers” lasted for a long time. Even the San Simonino fresco in Nanto was defaced by this rage. This is the reason why, during that art exhibition, I needed some time to recognize a painting in that indistinct blur of light and colors.

My attempt at gathering the information I needed in order to make sense of the simulacrum in the Nanto parish church, led me to discover an often overlooked incident, known only to the artists who represented it, their commissioners, their audience; but the deep discomfort I felt when I first looked at the fresco still has not vanished.

La cara Pasifae


Suggested bibliography:
– R. Po – Chia Hsia, Trent 1475. Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Yale 1992
– A. Esposito, D. Quaglioni, Processi contro gli Ebrei di Trento (1475-1478), CEDAM 1990
– A. Toaff, Pasque di sangue: ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, Il Mulino 2008

Teresa Margolles: Translating The Horror

Imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The “City of Evil”, one of the most violent places on the entire planet. Here, in the past few years, murders have reached inconceivable numbers. More than 3000 victims only in 2010 – an average of eight to nine people killed every day.
So every day, you leave your home praying you won’t be caught in some score-settling fight between the over 900 pandillas (armed gangs) tied to the drug cartels. Every day, like it or not, you are a witness to the neverending slaughter that goes on in your town. It’s not a metaphor. It is a real, daily, dreadful massacre.

Now imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and you’re a woman aged between 15 and 25.
Your chances of not being subjected to violence, and of staying alive, drastically drop. In Juárez women like you are oppressed, battered, raped; they often disappear, and their bodies – if they’re ever found – show signs of torture and mutilations.
If you were to be kidnapped, you already know that in all probability your disappearance wouldn’t even be reported. No one would look for you anyway: the police seem to be doing anything but investigating. “She must have had something to do with the cartel – people would say – or else she somehow asked for it“.

Photo credit: Scott Dalton.

Finally, imagine you live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, you’re a woman and you’re an artist.
How would you explain this hell to those who live outside Juárez? How can you address the burden of desperation and suffering this carnage places upon the hearts of the relatives? How will you be heard, in a world which is already saturated with images of violence? How are you going to convey in a palpable way all this anguish, the sense of constant loss, the waste of human life?

Teresa Margolles, born in 1963 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, was a trained pathologist before she became an artist. She now lives in Mexico City, but in the past she worked in several morgues across South America, including the one in Ciudad Juárez, that terrible mortuary where an endless river of bodies keeps flowing through four huge refrigerators (each containing up to 120 corpses).
A morgue for me is a thermometer of a society. What happens inside a morgue is what happens outside. The way people die show me what is happening in the city.

Starting from this direct experience, Margolles oriented her whole research towards two difficult objectives: one one hand she aims at sabotaging the narrative, ubiquitous in Mexican media and society, which blames the victims (the afore-mentioned “they were asking for it“); on the other, she wants to make the consequences of violence concrete and tangible to her audience, translating the horror into a physical, universal language.

But a peculiar lucidity is needed to avoid certain traps. The easiest way would be to rely on a raw kind of shock art: subjecting the public to scenes of massacre, mutilated bodies, mangled flesh. But the effect would be counter-productive, as our society is already bombarded with such representations, and we are so used to hyperreal images that we can hardly tell them apart from fiction.

It is then necessary to bring the public in touch with death and pain, but through some kind of transfer, or translation, so that the observer is brought on the edge of the abyss by his own sensitivity.

This is the complex path Teresa Margolles chose to take. The following is a small personal selection of her works displayed around the world, in major museums and art galleries, and in several Biennials.

En el aire (2003). The public enters a room, and is immediately seized by a slight euforia upon seeing dozens of soap bubbles joyfully floating in the air: the first childish reaction is to reach out and make them burst. The bubble pops, and some drops of water fall on the skin.
What the audience soon discovers, though, is those bubbles are created with the water and soap that have been used to wash the bodies of homicide victims in the morgue. And suddenly everything changes: the water which fell on our skin created an invisible, magical connection between us and these anonymous cadavers; and each bubble becomes the symbol of a life, a fragile soul that got lost in the void.

Vaporización (2001). Here the water from the mortuary, once again collected and disinfected, is vaporized in the room by some humidifiers. Death saturates the atmosphere, and we cannot help but breathe this thick mist, where every particle bears the memory of brutally killed human beings.

Tarjetas para picar cocaina (1997-99). Margolles collected some pictures of homicide victims connected with drug wars. She then gave them to drug addicts so they could use them to cut their dose of cocaine. The nonjudgemental metaphor is clear – the dead fuel narco-trafficking, every sniff implies the violence – but at the same time these photographs become spiritual objects, invested as they are with a symbolic/magic meaning directly connected to a specific dead person.

Lote Bravo (2005). Layed out on the floor are what look like simple bricks. In fact, they have been created using the sand collected in five different spots in Juárez, where the bodies of raped and murdered women were found. Each handmade brick is the symbol of a woman who was killed in the “city of dead girls”.

Trepanaciones (Sonidos de la morgue) (2003). Just some headphones, hanging from the ceiling. The visitor who decides to wear one, will hear the worldess sounds of the autopsies carried out by Margolles herself. Sounds of open bodies, bones being cut – but without any images that might give some context to these obscene noises, without the possibility of knowing exactly what they refer to. Or to whom they correspond: to what name, broken life, interrupted hopes.

Linea fronteriza (2005). The photograph of a suture, a body sewed up after the autopsy: but the detail that makes this image really powerful is the tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its two halves that do not match anymore. Tattoos are a way to express one’s own individuality: a senseless death is the border line that disrupts and shatters it.

Frontera (2011). Margolles removed two walls from Juárez and Culiacán, and exhibited them inside the gallery. Some bullet holes are clearly visible on these walls, the remnants of the execution of two policemen and four young men at the hands of the drug cartel. Facing these walls, one is left to wonder. What does it feel like to stand before a firing squad?
Furthermore, by “saving” these walls (which were quickly replaced by new ones, in the original locations) Margolles is also preserving the visual trace of an act of violence that society is eager to remove from collective memory.

Frazada/La Sombra (2016). A simple structure, installed outdoors, supports a blanket, like the tent of a peddler stand. You can sit in the shade to cool off from the sun. And yet this blanket comes from the morgue in La Paz, where it was used to wrap up the corpse of a femicide victim. The shadow stands for the code of silence surrounding these crimes – it is, once again, a conceptual stratagem to bring us closer to the woman’s death. This shroud, this murder is casting its shadow on us too.

Pajharu/Sobre la sangre (2017). Ten murdered  women, ten blood-stained pieces of cloth that held their corpses. Margolles enrolled seven Aymara weavers to embroider this canvas with traditional motifs. The clotted blood stains intertwine with the floreal decorations, and end up being absorbed and disguised within the patterns. This extraordinary work denounces, on one hand, how violence has become an essential part of a culture: when we think of Mexico, we often think of its most colorful traditions, without taking notice of the blood that soaks them, without realizing the painful truth hidden behind those stereotypes we tourists love so much. On the other hand, though, Sobre la sangre is an act of love and respect for those murdered women. Far from being mere ghosts, they are an actual presence; by preserving and embellishing these blood traces, Margolles is trying to subtract them from oblivion, and give them back their lost beauty.

Lengua (2000). Margolles arranged funeral services for this boy, who was killed in a drug-related feud, and in return asked his family permission to preserve and use his tonge for this installation. So that it could speak on. Like the tattoo in Linea frontizera, here the piercing is the sign of a truncated singularity.
The theoretical shift here is worthy of note: a human organ, deprived of the body that contained it and decontextualized, becomes an object in its own right, a rebel tongue, a “full” body in itself — carrying a whole new meaning. Scholar Bethany Tabor interpreted this work as mirroring the Deleuzian concept of body without organs, a body which de-organizes itself, revolting against those functions that are imparted upon it by society, by capitalism, by the established powers (all that Artaud referred to by using the term “God”, and from which he whished “to have done with“).

37 cuerpos (2007). The remnants of the thread used to sew up the corpses of 37 victims are tied together to form a rope which stretches across the space and divides it like a border.

¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (2009). This work, awarded at the 53rd Venice Biennial, is the one that brought Margolles in the spotlight. The floor of the room is wet with the water used to wash bodies at the Juárez morgue. On the walls, huge canvases look like abstract paintings but in reality these are sheets soaked in the victims blood.
Outside the Mexican Pavillion, on a balcony overlooking the calle, an equally blood-stained Mexico flag is hoisted. Necropolitics takes over the art spaces.

It is not easy to live in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to be a woman, and to be an artist who directly tackles the endless, often voiceless violence. It is even more difficult to try and find that miraculous balance between rawness and sensitivity, minimalism and incisivity, while maintaining a radical and poetic approach that can upset the public but also touch their heart.

For this post I am indebted to Bethany Tabor, who at Death & The Maiden Conference presented her brilliant paper Performative Remains: The Forensic Art of Teresa Margolles, focusing on the Deleuzian implications of Margolle’s works.
A couple of available essays on Margolles are
What Else Could We Talk About? and Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 5

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

R.I.P. Herschell G. Lewis

Yesterday, at the age of 87, Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away.
This man remains an adorable, unique paradox. Clumsy director yet a crafty old devil, completely foreign to the elegance of images, who only ever made movies to scrape out a living. A man who unwillingly changed the history of cinema.

His intuition — even slightly accidental, according to the legend — was to understand B-movies had the task of filling, unveiling mainstream cinema’s ellipses: the key was to try and put inside the frame everything that, for moral or conventional reasons, was usually left off-screen.
A first example were nudies, those little flicks featuring ridiculous plots (if any), only meant to show some buttocks and breasts; a kind of rudimental sexploitation, not even aiming to be erotic. H. G. Lewis was the first to realize there was a second taboo besides nudity that was never being shown in “serious” movies, and on which he could try to cash in: violence, or better, its effects. The obscene view of blood, torn flesh, exposed guts.

In 1960 Hitchcock, in order to get Psycho through censorship, had to promise he would change the editing of the shower scene, because someone in the examination board thought he had seen a frame where the knife blade penetrated Janet Leigh’s skin. It doesn’t matter that Hitch never really re-edited the sequence, but presented it again a month later with no actual modification (and this time nobody saw anything outrageous): the story is nonetheless emblematic of Hays Code‘s impositions at the time.
Three years later, Lewis’ Blood Feast came out. An awfully bad movie, poorly directed and even more awkwardly acted. But its opening sequence was a bomb by itself: on the scene, a woman was stabbed in the eye, then the killer proceeded to dismember her in full details… all this, in a bathtub.
In your face, Sir Alfred.

Of course today even Lewis’ most hardcore scenes, heirs to the butcheries of Grand Guignol, seem laughable on the account of their naivety. It’s even hard to imagine splatter films were once a true genre, before they became a language.

Explicit violence is today no more than an additional color in the director’s palette, an available option to knowingly choose among others: we find it anywhere, from crime stories to sci-fi, even in comedies. As blood has entered the cinematic lexicon, it is now a well-thought-out element, pondered and carefully weighed, sometimes aestheticised to the extremes of mannerism (I’m looking at you, Quentin).

But in order to get to this freedom, the gore genre had to be relegated for a long time to second and third-rank movies. To those bad, dirty, ugly films which couldn’t show less concern for the sociology of violence, or its symbolic meanings. Which, for that very same reason, were damn exciting in their own right.

Blood Feast is like a Walt Whitman poem“, Lewis loved to repeat. “It’s no good, but it was the first of its type“.
Today, with the death of its godfather, we may declare the splatter genre finally filed and historicized.

But still, any time we are shocked by some brutal killing in the latest Game of Thrones episode, we should spare a thankful thought to this man, and that bucket of cheap offal he purchased just to make a bloody film.

Toshio Saeki

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Among all the artists adressing the liminal zones of obscenity and taboo, few have explored the Unheimliche in all its variations with Toshio Saeki’s precision.

Born in 1945 in Miyazaki prefecture, he moved to Osaka when he was 4 years old and then landed in Tokyo at 24, right when the sex industry was booming. After a few months in a publicity agency, Saeki decided to focus exclusively on adult illustration. His drawings were published on Heibon Punch and other magazines, and slowly gained international interest. Today, after 40 years of activity, Toshio Saeki is among the most praised japanese erotic artists, with solo exhibitions even outside Japan — in Paris, London, Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.135

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For Saeki, art — like fantasy — cannot and should not know any limit.
In spite of the sulfurous nature of his drawings, he had surprisingly little trouble with censorship: apart from some “warning” notified by the police to the magazines featuring his plates, Saeki never experienced true pressions because of his work. And this is understandable if we take into account the cultural context, because his work, although modern, is deeply rooted in tradition.
As the critic Erick Gilbert put it, “if you look at Saeki’s art outside of its cultural sphere, you may be troubled by its violence. But once you go inside that cultural sphere, you know that this violence is well-understood, that ‘it’s only lines on paper,’ to quote cartoonist Robert Crumb. This extreme imagery of Japanese artists, and their characteristic need to go as far as possible, can be traced several centuries back to the so-called bloody ukiyo-e of the 19th century“.

To fully understand Toshio Saeki, it’s essential to look back to the muzan-e, a bloody subgenre of prints (ukiyo) which appeared around the half of ‘800, drawn by masters such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This latter created the Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, in which he depicted all sorts of atrocities and violent deaths, taken from the news or from the stories of Kabuki theater. Here are some examples of Yoshitoshi’s extreme production.

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Inada-Kyūzō-Shinsuke-woman-suspended-from-rope-12

Two-women-of-Nojiri-who-were-set-upon-while-travelling-robbed-tied-to-trees-and-eaten-by-wolves

YOSHITOSHI-Reizei-Takatoyo-committing-seppuku-from-the-series-Selections-from-One-Hundred-Warriors.

Other muzan-e, often particularly cruel, were drawn by Utagawa Yoshiiku, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and more marginally Hokusai; this current would then influence the more recent generation of artists and mangaka interested in developing the themes of ero guro – eroticism contaminated by surreal, bizarre, grotesque and crooked elements. Among the contemporary most prominent figures, Shintaro Kago and the great (and hyper-violent) Suehiro Maruo stand out.
So our Toshio Saeki is in good company, as he mixes the solid tradition of muzan-e with classical figures of japanese demons, bringing to the surface the erotic tension already hidden in ancient plates, making it both explicit and obsessive.

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His work is a visionary maelstrom in which sex and torture are inseparable, where erotic pulsion is intertwined with frenzy and psychopatology. The manic intensity of his illustrations, however, is coupled with a formal and stylish elegance, which cools down and crystallizes the nightmare: his prints are not created on the spot, because this precise refinement points to a deep study of the image.
Often they are connected with nightmares I had as a child, or extreme fantasies of my youth. These images made an impression on me, and I exaggerate them until they become those works that seem to have such a stong impact on the viewer“, declared the artist. These visions are carefully considered by Saeki, before he puts them on paper. For this reason his work looks like some sort of cartography of the further limits of erotic fantasy, those fringes where desire ultimately transforms into cupio dissolvi and cupio dissolvere (the desire to be annihilated, and to annihilate).

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But, for all their shocking power, Saeki’s paitings are always just dreams. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery. I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream. […] Let’s not forget that the images I draw are fictional“.

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And, again: “The important thing, to me, is awakening the viewer’s sensitiviy. I don’t care if he is a bigot or not. I want to give him the sensation that in his life — basically a secure and ordinary existence — there might be “something wrong”. Then hopefully the observer could discover a part of himself he did not know was there”.

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Quotes appearing in this post are taken from: here, here and here.
For a deeper treatise on muzan-e, here’s an article (in Italian) on the wonderful website Kainowska.

Regali di Natale

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Le festività sono alle porte e, come tutti gli anni, la magia del Natale viene incrinata dalla più temuta delle incombenze: la scelta dei regali adeguati. Se durante tutto il resto dell’anno ci reputiamo persone creative, in questo periodo qualsiasi briciolo di originalità sembra abbandonarci definitivamente, e più ci straziamo le meningi per farci venire qualche idea, più la nostra fantasia rimane muta e desolata come la page blanche che tanto ossessiona gli scrittori.

È forse quest’ansia da prestazione che ha spinto la nostra lettrice horrorboutiqueph a richiedere a gran voce, in un recente commento, un articolo di consigli sullo shopping natalizio. La accontentiamo volentieri, sperando di fare cosa gradita a quanti di voi sono alla frenetica ricerca di quello spunto particolare che trasforma il risaputo scambio dei pacchi in un evento memorabile.

Ecco dunque alcune idee per i doni di Natale, in puro stile Bizzarro Bazar.

1. Adottare un teschio

Il Mütter Museum di Philadelphia è uno dei musei di storia della medicina più noti a livello mondiale, grazie anche a un’intelligente valorizzazione “pubblicitaria” delle sue collezioni. Oltre a conferenze, iniziative di vario genere e sontuosi cataloghi, c’è addirittura chi ha celebrato le proprie nozze fra le sue mura.
Fino al 31 Dicembre (ma gli organizzatori stanno valutando la possibilità di estendere questa deadline) si può prendere parte alla nuova e innovativa campagna “Save Our Skulls”. Avete la possibilità, al costo di 200$, di riservare l’adozione di uno dei 139 teschi della collezione frenologica del museo per garantire il suo restauro – ed assicurare che il nome del benefattore sia ben visibile su una targhetta a fianco del cranio esposto nel museo. Sta a voi scegliere, anche in base alla storia di questi antichi reperti: c’è il teschio della prostituta viennese, quello del criminale tailandese, l’equilibrista che si è spezzato il collo durante un spettacolo, il fanatico russo che, seguendo i dettami di una setta che praticava la castrazione preventiva contro le insidie della lussuria, morì di ferite autoinflitte mentre cercava di asportarsi i testicoli con un metodo troppo casalingo.
Il Museo vi spedirà un certificato e una foto del cranio con la relativa targhetta: l’amico o il parente a titolo del quale avete fatto l’iscrizione non potrà che commuoversi sapendo che, oltreoceano, il suo nome compare di fianco al teschio di un malato di sifilide o di un suicida.

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Save Our Skulls

2. Il bagnoschiuma

Gli articoli per il benessere della persona non passano mai di moda, perché coniugano il piacere con l’utilità. Ecco quindi un gel bagno/doccia particolare, divertente e di raffinato buongusto, particolarmente consigliato per i fan di Psycho o di Dexter.

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Blood Bath Shower Gel

3. Le opere di Mala Tempora

Giulio Artioli è un artista italiano che realizza, “in un angolo caotico di casa”, degli strani e affascinanti ibridi da collezione. Ispirate al mondo delle wunderkammern e dei sideshow, della letteratura fantastica e delle stranezze anatomiche, le creazioni di “Mala Tempora” (questo il nome dell’atelier) hanno il fascino degli oggetti impossibili: vi trovano posto le Sirene del Pacifico, gli sfuggenti Vescovi di mare, i reperti di antiche esplorazioni, uno studio anatomico di brigante calabrese, teste mummificate, feti di balene, scheletri di gnomo e teschi di gemelli siamesi. Il tutto, ovviamente, ricreato dalle mani dell’artista: ogni opera è inoltre corredata da un’accurata e dettagliata storia dell’esemplare in questione, e queste righe sono talmente affascinanti e dense di meraviglia da valere da sole gran parte dell’acquisto.

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Mala Tempora Studio

4. La poltrona per le fotocopie

Un vostro conoscente è un importante uomo d’affari – il classico uomo che ha già tutto e al quale non sapete proprio cosa regalare, a parte l’ennesimo dopobarba? Articolo di design e di arredamento assieme, questa poltrona (opera dell’artista Tomomi Sayuda) è il perfetto complemento per ogni ufficio. Appena una persona vi si siede, si attiva la fotocopiatrice nascosta al suo interno. Certo, un po’ si perde il brivido del proibito, quando, da soli nella stanza delle fotocopie, ci si trovava a combattere contro questo tipo di irresistibili istinti.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QxI2Ix-Njg]

Tomomi Sayuda

5. Il titolo nobiliare

Ecco un dono che è segno di rispetto e di devozione.
In Scozia, chiunque acquisti dei possedimenti terrieri può fregiarsi del titolo di Lord o Lady. Così la società Higland Titles ha pensato a un uso intelligente per questo cavillo: suddividendo la foresta di Glencoe (sede di uno storico massacro e importante riserva naturale) in minuscoli appezzamenti di meno di un metro quadro, e mettendoli in vendita, garantisce all’acquirente la possibilità di diventare un Lord. L’iniziativa ha una finalità ecologica, cioè garantire che l’area boschiva non divenga mai terreno edificabile, e allo stesso tempo assicurare introiti aggiuntivi per i servizi forestali.

Ma, siamo sinceri, il bello è che regalare un titolo nobiliare fa sempre il suo effetto. E sì, il nuovo appellativo può essere registrato sui documenti ufficiali come ad esempio passaporto o carta d’identità.

(Per inciso, chi scrive è già entrato in possesso di un pezzetto delle Highlands scozzesi, proprio grazie alla generosa goliardia di alcuni amici. D’ora in poi sappiate che Lord Bizzarro Bazar esige una certa deferenza, da parte di voialtri umili villici.)

Scottish-Highlands

Become a Lord

6. Cordone ombelicale

Siete a cena e il vostro amico, invece di parlare con voi, non la smette di controllare il telefonino. Per molte persone ormai gli smartphone sono parte integrante della vita quotidiana, e vengono accuditi con infinita attenzione, e coccolati come fossero carne della propria carne. Risulta perfetto allora un regalo che è anche un efficace monito, pensato per chi fa del proprio iPhone un prolungamento del corpo, un’appendice o una protesi tecnologica. Un caricabatterie che pulsa e vive, degno di David Cronenberg, dimostra come perfino il cellulare possa diventare un’escrescenza ibrida di materia organica e meccanica. Ecco il vostro bambino, gente.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQPDSES8my0]

Mio I-zawa

Su Battileddu

Il Carnevale, si sa, è la versione cattolica dei saturnalia romani e delle più antiche festività greche in onore di Dioniso. Si trattava di un momento in cui le leggi normali del pudore, delle gerarchie e dell’ordine sociale venivano completamente rovesciate, sbeffeggiate e messe a soqquadro. Questo era possibile proprio perché accadeva all’interno di un preciso periodo, ben delimitato e codificato: e, nonostante i millenni trascorsi e la secolarizzazione di questa festa, il Carnevale mantiene ancora in parte questo senso di liberatoria follia.

Ma a Lula, in Sardegna, ogni anno si celebra un Carnevale del tutto particolare, molto distante dalle colorate (e commerciali) mascherate cittadine. Si tratta di un rituale allegorico antichissimo, giunto inalterato fino ai giorni nostri grazie alla tenacia degli abitanti di questo paesino nel salvaguardare le proprie tradizioni. È un Carnevale che non rinnega i lati più oscuri ed apertamente pagani che stanno all’origine di questa festa, incentrato com’è sul sacrificio e sulla crudeltà.

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Il protagonista del Carnevale lulese è chiamato su Battileddu (o Batiledhu), la “vittima”, che incarna forse proprio Dioniso stesso – dio della natura selvaggia, forza vitale primordiale e incontrollabile. L’uomo che lo interpreta è acconciato in maniera terribile: vestito di pelli di montone, ha il volto coperto di nera fuliggine e il muso sporco di sangue. Sulla sua testa, coperta da un fazzoletto nero da donna, è fissato un mostruoso copricapo cornuto, ulteriormente adornato da uno stomaco di capra.

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Le pelli, le corna e il viso imbrattato di cenere e sangue sarebbero già abbastanza spaventosi: come non bastasse, su Battileddu porta al collo dei rumorosi campanacci (marrazzos) mentre sotto di essi, sulla pancia, penzola un grosso stomaco di bue che è stato riempito di sangue ed acqua.

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Per quanto possa incutere timore, su Battileddu è una vittima sacrificale, e la rappresentazione “teatrale” che segue lo mostra molto chiaramente. Il dio folle della natura è stato catturato, e viene trascinato per le strade del villaggio. Il rovesciamento carnascialesco è evidente nei cosiddetti Battileddos Gattias, uomini travestiti da vedove che però indossano dei gambali da maschio: si aggirano intonando lamenti funebri per la vittima, porgendo bambole di pezza alle donne tra la folla affinché le allattino. Ad un certo punto della sfilata, le finte vedove si siedono in cerchio e cominciano a passarsi un pizzicotto l’una con l’altra (spesso dopo aver costretto qualcuno fra il pubblico ad unirsi a loro); la prima a cui sfuggirà una risata sarà costretta a pagare pegno, che normalmente consiste nel versare da bere.

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In questo chiassoso e sregolato corteo funebre, intanto, su Battileddu continua ad essere pungolato, battuto e strattonato dalle funi di cuoio con cui l’hanno legato i Battileddos Massajos, i custodi del bestiame, uomini vestiti da contadini. È uno spettacolo cruento, al quale nemmeno il pubblico si sottrae: tutti cercano di colpire e di bucare lo stomaco di bue che il dio porta sulla pancia, in modo che il sangue ne sgorghi, fecondando la terra. Quando questo accade, gli spettatori se ne imbrattano il volto.

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Alla fine, lo stomaco di su Battileddu viene squarciato del tutto, e il dio si accascia nel sangue, sventrato. Si alza un grido: l’an mortu, Deus meu, l’an irgangatu! (“l’hanno ucciso, Dio mio, lo hanno sgozzato!”). Ecco che le vedove intonano nuovi lamenti e mettono in scena un corteo funebre, ma le parole e i gesti delle “pie donne” sono in realtà osceni e scurrili.

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Nel frattempo un altro capovolgimento ha avuto luogo: due dei “custodi” sono diventati bestie da soma e, aggiogati ad un carro come buoi, l’hanno tirato per le strade durante la rappresentazione. È su questo carro che viene issato il corpo esanime della vittima, per essere esibito alla piazza in alcuni giri trionfali. Ma la finzione viene presto svelata: un bicchiere di vino riporta in vita su Battileddu, e la festa vera e propria può finalmente avere inizio.

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Questa messa in scena della passione e del cruento sacrificio di su Battileddu si ricollega certamente agli antichi riti agricoli di fecondazione della terra; la cosa davvero curiosa è che la tradizione sarebbe potuta scomparire quando, nella prima metà del ‘900, venne abbandonata. È ricomparsa soltanto nel 2001, a causa dell’interesse antropologico cresciuto attorno a questa caratteristica figura, nell’ambito dello studio e valorizzazione delle maschere sarde. Ora, il dio impazzito che diviene montone sacrificale è di nuovo tra di noi.

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(Grazie, freya76!)

La Contessa sanguinaria

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Articolo a cura della nostra guestblogger Veronica Pagnani

Erzsébet Báthory nacque nel 1560 a Nyírbátor, nell’odierna Ungheria, ma trascorse i primi anni della sua infanzia nella proprietà di famiglia in Transilvania. Meglio nota come Contessa Dracula o Contessa Sanguinaria, è considerata la più feroce e famosa assassina seriale in Ungheria ed in Slovacchia, con un numero di vittime che oscillerebbe da 100 a 300, tra accertate e sospette. I testimoni vociferavano anche di un certo diario, appartenuto alla contessa, in cui sarebbero trascritti minuziosamente i nomi di ben 650 vittime, il che la renderebbe la più prolifica serial killer di sempre, anche se gli storici sono soliti sostenere la prima stima di circa 300 vittime. I crimini sarebbero tutti avvenuti fra il 1585 e il 1610.

Erzsébet proveniva dalla nobile famiglia dei Báthory-Ecsed, che poteva vantare nel suo albero genealogico vari eroi di guerra ed addirittura un re di Polonia; ma, anche a causa di vari matrimoni tra consanguinei, molti membri della casata portavano i segni evidenti di disturbi mentali e schizofrenia. La stessa Erzsébet, fin dall’età di sei anni, era solita passare da uno stato di quiete ad uno di folle collera, disordine alimentato anche dai numerosi episodi cruenti a cui era costretta, nonostante la sua giovane età, ad assistere. Vide un giorno dei soldati torturare uno zingaro colpevole di aver venduto i propri figli ai turchi; la condanna consisteva nel tagliare il ventre di un cavallo tenuto fermo tramite delle corde, inserire il condannato nel ventre del cavallo per poi ricucirlo. All’età di 13 anni, poi, incontrò un suo cugino, il principe di Transilvania, il quale davanti ai suoi occhi ordinò di tagliare naso e orecchie a 54 persone colpevoli di aver sostenuto una rivolta di contadini.

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Appena quindicenne sposò Ferenc Nádasdy, anch’egli nobile di nascita e d’indole violenta: il suo passatempo preferito consisteva nel torturare i servi senza però ucciderli, o cospargere di miele una ragazza nuda che veniva poi legata vicino alle arnie di sua proprietà. I due sposi si scambiarono alcune dritte sui metodi di tortura, e a quanto pare Erzsébet, che era ben acculturata sulle tecniche più efficaci, istigò il marito ad alcune feroci pratiche.

Essendo Nádasdy il più delle volte impegnato a combattere contro i turchi, Erzsébet cominciò a frequentare sua zia, la contessa Karla, e a partecipare alle orge da lei stessa organizzate. Nello stesso periodo conobbe Dorkò , una donna che assieme al suo servo Thorko incoraggiò le tendenze sadiche della contessa insegnandole la stregoneria.

Crescendo, sia Erzsébet che suo marito (di circa sei anni più grande di lei) cominciarono a sfogare tutta la loro collera e follia sui servi, i quali, dal canto loro, potevano fare ben poco per difendersi. Molti erano quelli che cercavano di fuggire, ma che spesso venivano recuperati per poi essere torturati selvaggiamente. Nessuna forma di umanità veniva mossa dai due nei confronti dei servi. Si racconta di una donna la quale si rifiutò un giorno di lavorare perché ammalata e i due sposi, sospettosi riguardo a questa presunta malattia, decisero di infilarle tra le dita dei pezzi di carta impregnati d’olio a cui fu poi dato fuoco. Da quel momento furono in pochi quelli che osarono ribellarsi alla loro follia.

In un giorno come tanti, dopo aver schiaffeggiato una serva, Erzsébet notò che, in un punto della sua mano, dove poco prima era caduta una goccia di sangue della poveretta, la sua pelle era come ringiovanita. Corse così immediatamente dagli alchimisti di corte per chiedere delucidazioni riguardo a questo episodio e questi, pur di compiacerla, le diedero ragione spiegandole che già da tempo era stato provato che il sangue delle vergini possedeva queste eccezionali qualità. La contessa si convinse, dunque, che fare abluzioni nel sangue delle vergini (o addirittura berlo) le avrebbe garantito un’eterna giovinezza.

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Per trovare le sue vittime, le quali avrebbero dovuto essere non solo giovani e belle, ma anche del suo stesso status sociale, Erzsèbet istituì nel suo castello un’accademia che, ufficialmente, aveva la funzione di educare le giovani provenienti da famiglie agiate. Col passare del tempo, e con l’aumentare del numero di denunce di scomparsa pervenute alla Chiesa Cattolica, l’imperatore Mattia II intervenne ordinando delle indagini sulla nobildonna. Gli inviati dell’imperatore, che entrarono di nascosto nel castello, colsero Erzsèbet sul fatto; nelle stanze e nelle prigioni vennero ritrovate decine di cadaveri in putrefazione recanti i segni della tortura, e altre ragazze ancora vive con gli arti amputati. A seguito di un rapido processo, Erzsèbet e i suoi fedeli, i quali si resero complici dei crimini efferati, vennero murati vivi nelle loro stanze, con un unico foro per ricevere il cibo, mentre Dorko fu bruciata sul rogo, dopo essere stata incriminata di stregoneria.

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Dopo quasi 500 anni, la storia di Erzsèbet è viva più che mai nei racconti e nelle leggende dell’est europeo, mentre, nel resto del mondo, la sua figura è associata il più delle volte a Vlad III Dracula, proveniente dalla Valacchia, anche se, dopo attenti studi sull’albero genealogico della contessa, di etnia magiara, non è mai stato scoperto alcun antenato romeno.

[Nota: Le penultime due immagini sono tratte da uno degli episodi del film Racconti Immorali (1974) di Walerian Borowczyk, che narra le gesta della contessa sanguinaria.]

Una goccia di veleno

La vipera di Russell è il responsabile numero uno degli avvelenamenti in India, dove circa 10.000 persone all’anno muoiono a causa del suo morso. Rispetto ad altri serpenti, il cui veleno attacca il sistema nervoso, questa vipera ha sviluppato delle emotossine, che agiscono quindi sul sangue. Guardate cosa provoca nel giro di pochi secondi una goccia di veleno lasciata cadere in un bicchiere di sangue.

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La biblioteca delle meraviglie – VIII

Angela Carter
LA CAMERA DI SANGUE
(1984-95, Feltrinelli, f.c.)

Femminista innamorata del simbolo, del mito e del fiabesco barocco, Angela Carter è stata una delle voci più distinte e originali della letteratura britannica del Novecento. I suoi romanzi e racconti vengono talvolta inseriti nella vaga definizione di “realismo magico”, in ragione dell’irruzione del fantastico nel contesto realistico, ma la scrittura della Carter unisce alla piacevolezza dell’affabulazione una complessa stratificazione di rimandi culturali che la avvicinano per certi versi al postmoderno. Non fanno eccezione queste fiabe classiche, rilette dalla Carter alla luce di una sensibilità moderna che ha metabolizzato stimoli distanti ed eclettici (la tradizione orale, i maudits francesi, Sade, la psicanalisi, ecc.).

Le favole reinventate ne La camera di sangue (fra le altre, Cappuccetto Rosso, Il gatto con gli stivali, la Bella e la Bestia, ecc.) sono di volta in volta crudeli, comiche, inquietanti o suggestive, ma sempre costruite alla luce di una particolare ironia che ne esalta i sottotesti sessuali o sessisti.

Il femminismo di Angela Carter, per quanto radicale, non è certamente manicheo ma pare anzi ambiguamente affascinato dalle figure maschili oppressive e dominanti (davvero esclusivamente per “denunciarle”?). In questo senso la vera e propria perla di questa antologia rimane il racconto d’apertura che dà il titolo alla raccolta, una rilettura libera della favola di Barbablù. La raffinatezza della descrizione dei sentimenti della sposa-bambina “acquistata” e segregata dal marito-orco è tra i punti più alti del libro: l’attrazione e la repulsione si confondono in modo quasi impercettibile nell’insicurezza virginale della protagonista. La prima notte di nozze avviene in una imponente camera del castello in cui il marito ha fatto istallare una dozzina di specchi – indicando la folla di ragazzine riflesse, esclama soddisfatto: “Guarda, me ne sono procurato un intero harem!”. Poi la deflorazione, ed ecco che con l’arrivo del sangue si disvela la maschera della sessualità come aggressione; sarà sempre il sangue a guidare come un filo rosso la protagonista alla scoperta del vero volto dell’assassino collezionista di mogli; e il sogno idilliaco si trasformerà in incubo proprio con l’apertura della porta proibita, la segreta del nero desiderio maschile, fatto di crudeltà e dominazione.

Per un’analisi del testo, rimandiamo a questa pagina.

Jacques Chessex
L’ULTIMO CRANIO DEL MARCHESE DI SADE
(2012, Fazi Editore)

Il libro postumo di Chessex esce in Italia a quasi tre anni dalla morte dell’autore svizzero, avvenuta per attacco cardiaco nel corso di una conferenza. E L’ultimo cranio ha certamente qualcosa di profetico, perché parla di uno scrittore che sta per morire: si tratta del famigerato Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, quel “divino marchese” che con il passare del tempo diviene una figura sempre più centrale nella cultura occidentale. La prima parte del romanzo racconta gli ultimi mesi di vita di Sade rinchiuso nel manicomio di Charenton, ormai minato nella salute a causa dei continui eccessi. La sua agonia è lenta e dolorosa: proprio lui, che ha passato gran parte della sua vita in cella, è ora costretto a fare i conti con un’altra prigione, quella della carne che va disfacendosi. Emorragie, coliche, tosse asmatica, obesità e sincopi lo rendono ancora più blasfemo e intrattabile del solito. In preda a uno sconfinato cupio dissolvi, Sade è ormai maniacalmente ossessionato dalle sue dissolutezze. La seconda parte del romanzo traccia invece la storia del suo cranio, che attraversa l’Europa e i secoli ritornando in superficie di tanto in tanto, e portando con sé un’aura magica di malvagità e sciagure. Come una vera e propria reliquia al contrario, il cranio diviene il simbolo beffardo di un ateismo che ha bisogno di martiri e di santi tanto quanto le religioni che disprezza. Questa duplicità rimanda evidentemente al celebre saggio di Klossowski Sade prossimo mio, in cui l’autore sottolinea più volte che l’ateismo del Marchese aveva necessità di una religione da vilipendere, e in definitiva anche il Sade di Chessex brucia di furia sovrumana, quasi divina. L’ultimo cranio, nonostante le accuse di pornografia e immoralità (oltre al sesso, il libro contiene anche qualche blasfemia esplicita), sorprende per la sostanziale pacatezza del linguaggio e i toni riflessivi che contrastano con la rabbia del protagonista: Chessex compone qui una misurata e matura vanitas, che ci parla della dissoluzione finale da cui non può scappare nemmeno un animo indomito.

Proprio perché l’uomo è solo, ha così terribilmente bisogno di simboli. Di un cranio, di amuleti, di oggetti di scongiuro. La consapevolezza vertiginosa della fine dell’individuo nella morte. A ogni istante, la rovina. Forse bisognerebbe considerare la passione per un cranio, e singolarmente per un cranio stregato, come una manifestazione disperata di amore di sè e del mondo già perduto“.