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

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

_____

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.

Fumone, the invisible castle

If by “mystery”, even in its etymological root, we mean anything closed, incomprehensible and hidden, then the castrum (castle), being a locked and fortified place, has always played the role of its perfect frame; it is the ideal setting for supernatural stories, a treasure chest of unspeakable and terrible deeds, a wonderful screen onto which our fears and desires can be projected.

This is certainly the case with the castle of Fumone, which appears to be inseparable from myth, from the enigmatic aura surrounding it, mostly on the account of its particularly dramatic history.

Right from its very name, this village shows a dark and most ominous legacy: Fumone, which means “great smoke”, refers to the advance of invaders.
Since it was annexed to the Papal States in XI Century, Fumone had a strategic outpost function, as it was designated to warn nearby villages of the presence of enemy armies; when they were spotted, a big fire was lit in the highest tower, called Arx Fumonis. This signal was then repeated by other cities, where similar pillars of thick smoke rose in the sky, until the alert came to Rome. “Cum Fumo fumat, tota campania tremat”: when Fumone is smoking, all the countryside trembles.
The castle, with its 14 towers, proved to be an impregnable military fortress, overruling the armies of Frederick Barbarossa and Henry VI, but the bloodiest part of its history has to do with its use as a prison by the State of the Church.
Fumone became sadly well-known both for its brutal detention conditions and for the illustrous guests who unwillingly entered its walls. Among others, notable prisoners were the antipope Gregory VIII in 1124 and, more than a century later, Pope Celestine V, guilty of the “big refusal”, that is abdicating the Papal throne.

These two characters are already shrouded in legend.
Gregory VIII died incarcerated in Fumone, after he opposed the Popes Paschal II, Gelasius II and Callixtus II and was defeated by the last one. In a corridor inside the castle, a plaque commemorates the antipope, and the guides (as well as the official website) never forget to suggest that Gregory’s corpse could be walled-up behind the plaque, as his body was never found. Just the first of many thrills offered by the tour.
As for the gentle but inconvenient Celestine V, he probably died of an infected abscess, weakened by the hardship of detention, and the legend has it that a flaming cross appeared floating over his cell door the day before his death. On several websites it is reported that a recent study of Celestine’s skull showed a hole caused by a 4-inch nail, the unmistakable sign of a cruel execution ordered by his successor Boniface VIII; but when researching more carefully, it turns out this “recent” survey in fact refers to two different and not-so-modern investigations, conducted in 1313 and 1888, while a 2013 analysis proved that the hole was inflicted many years after the Saint’s death.
But, as I’ve said, when it comes to Fumone, myth permeates every inch of the castle, overriding reality.

Another example is the infamous “Well of the Virgin”, located on the edge of a staircase.
From the castle website:

Upon arriving at the main floor, you will be directly in front of the “Well of the Virgin”.  This cruel and medieval method of punishment was used by the Vassals of Fumone when exercising the “Right of the Lord” an assumed legal right allowing the lord of a medieval estate to be the first to take the virginity of his serfs’ maiden daughters. If the girl was found not to be a virgin, she was thrown into the well.

Several portals, otherwise trustworthy, add that the Well “was allegedly equipped with sharp blades“; and all seem to agree that the “Right of the Lord” (ius primae noctis) was a real and actual practice. Yet it should be clear, after decades of research, that this is just another legend, born during the passage from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Scholars have examined the legislations of Germanic monarchies, Longobards, Carolingians, Communes, Holy Roman Empire and later kingdoms, and found no trace of the elusive right. If something similar existed, as a maritagium, it was very likely a right over assets and not persons: the father of the bride had to pay a compensation to grant his daughter a dowry — basically, possessions and lands passed from father-in-law to son-in-law at the cost of a fee to the local landlord.
But again, why asking what’s real, when the idea of a well where young victims were thrown is so morbidly alluring?

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I would rather specify at this point that I have no interest in debunking the information reported on the castle’s website, nor on other sites. Legends exist since time immemorial, and if they survive it means they are effective, important, even necessary narratives. I am willing to maintain both a disenchanted and amazed look, as I’m constantly fascinated by the power of stories, and this analysis only helps clarifying that we are dealing, indeed, with legends.
But let’s go back to visiting the castle.

Perhaps the most bizarre curiosity in the whole manor house is a small piece of wooden furniture in the archive room.
In this room ancient books and documents are kept, and nothing can prepare the visitor for the surprise when the unremarkable cabinet is opened: inside, in a crystal display case, lies the embalmed body of a child, surrounded by his favorite toys. The lower door shows the dead boy’s wardrobe.

The somber story is that of “Little Marquis” Francesco Longhi, the eight and last child of Marchioness Emilia Caetani Longhi, and brother of seven sisters. According to the legend, his sisters did not look kindly upon this untimely heir, and proceded to poison him or bring him to a slow demise by secretly putting glass shreds in his food. The kid started feeling excruciating pains in the stomach and died shortly after, leaving his mother in the utmost desperation. Blinded by the suffering, the Marchioness called a painter to remove any sign of happiness from the family portraits, had the little boy embalmed and went on dressing him, undressing him, speaking to him and crying on his deathbed until her own death.

This tragic tale could not go without some supernatural twist. So here comes the Marchioness’ ghost, now and then seen crying inside the castle, and even the child’s ghost, who apparently enjoys playing around and moving objects in the fortress’ large rooms.

A place like Fumone seems to function as a catalyst for funereal mysteries, and represents the quintessence of our craving for the paranormal. It is no cause for indignation if this has become part of the castle’s marketing and communication strategies, as it is ever more difficult in Italy to promote the incredible richness of our own heritage. And in the end people come for the ghosts, and leave having learned a bit of history.
We would rather ask: why do we so viscerally love ghost stories, tales of concealed bodies and secret atrocities?

Fabio Camilletti, in his brilliant introduction to the anthology Fantasmagoriana, writes about Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known by the stage name of Robertson, one of the first impresarios to use a magic lantern in an astounding sound & light show. At the end of his performance he used to remind the audience of their final destiny, as a skeleton suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Camilletti compares this gimmick to the idea that, ultimately, we ourselves are ghosts:

Robertson said something similar, before turning the projector back on and showing a skeleton standing on a pedestal: this is you, this is the fate that awaits you. Thus telling ghost stories, as paradoxical as it may seem, is also a way to come to terms with the fear of death, forgetting — in the enchanted space created by the narration, or by the magic lantern — our ephemeral and fleeting nature.

Whether this is the real motivation behind the success of  spook stories, or it’s maybe the opposite — a more mundane denial of impermanence which finds relief in the idea of leaving a trace after death (better to come back as a ghost than not coming back at all) — it is unquestionably an extremely powerful symbolic projection. So much so that in time it becomes stratified and lingers over certain places like a shadow, making them elusive and almost imaginary. The same goes for macabre tales of torture and murder, which by turning the ultimate terror into a narrative may help metabolyzing it.

The Longhi-De Paolis castle is still shrouded in a thick smoke: no longer coming from the highest tower, it is now the smoke of myth, the multitude of legends woven over history’s ancient skin. It would be hard, perhaps even fruitless in a place like this, to persist in discerning truth from symbolic construction, facts fom interpretations, reality from fantasy.
Fumone remains an “invisible” castle that Calvino would have certainly liked, a fortification which is more a mental representation than a tangible location, the haven of the dreamer seeking comfort (because yes, they do offer comfort) in cruel fables.

Here is Castle of Fumone‘s official site.

The Mysteries of Saint Cristina

(English translation courtesy of Elizabeth Harper,
of the wonderful All the Saints You Should Know
)

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Two days ago, one of the most unusual solemnities in Italy was held as usual: the “Mysteries” of Saint Cristina of Bolsena, a martyr who lived in the early fourth century.

Every year on the night of July 23rd, the statue of St. Cristina is carried in a procession from the basilica to the church of St. Salvatore in the highest and oldest part of the village. The next morning, the statue follows the path in reverse. The procession stops in five town squares where wooden stages are set up. Here, the people of Bolsena perform ten tableaux vivants that retrace the life and martyrdom of the saint.

These sacred representations have intrigued anthropologists and scholars of theater history and religion for more than a century. Their origins lie in the fog of time.

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In our article Ecstatic Bodies, which is devoted to the relationship between the lives of the saints and eroticism, we mentioned the martyrdom of St. Cristina. In fact, her hagiography is (in our opinion) a masterful little narrative, full of plot twists and underlying symbolism.

According to tradition, Cristina was a 12-year old virgin who secretly converted to Christianity against the wishes of her father, Urbano. Urbano held the position of Prefect of Volsinii (the ancient name for Bolsena). Urbano tried every way of removing the girl from the Christian faith and bringing her back to worship pagan gods, but he was unsuccessful. His “rebellious” daughter, in her battle against her religious father, even destroyed the golden idols and distributed the pieces to the poor. After she stepped out of line again, Urban decided to bend her will through force.

It is at this point the legend of St. Cristina becomes unique. It becomes one of the most imaginative, brutal, and surprising martyrologies that has been handed down.

Initially, Cristina was slapped and beaten with rods by twelve men. They became exhausted little by little, but the strength of Cristina’s faith was unaffected. So Urbano commanded her to be brought to the wheel, and she was tied to it. When the wheel turned, it broke the body and disarticulated the bones, but that wasn’t enough. Urban lit an oil-fueled fire under the wheel to make his daughter burn faster.  But as soon as Cristina prayed to God and Jesus, the flames turned against her captors and devoured them (“instantly the fire turned away from her and killed fifteen hundred persecutors and idolaters, while St. Cristina lay on the wheel as if she were on a bed and the angels served her”).

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So Urbano locked her up in prison where Cristina was visited by her mother – but not even maternal tears could make it stop. Desperate, her father sent five slaves out at night. They picked up the girl, tied a huge millstone around her neck and threw her in the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning at dawn, Urbano left the palace and sadly went down to the shore of the lake. But suddenly he saw something floating on the water, a kind of mirage that was getting closer. It was his daughter, as a sort of Venus or nymph rising from the waves. She was standing on the stone that was supposed to drag her to the bottom; instead it floated like a small boat. Seeing this, Urban could not withstand such a miraculous defeat. He died on the spot and demons took possession of his soul.

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But Cristina’s torments were not finished: Urbano was succeeded by Dione, a new persecutor. He administered his cruelty by immersing the virgin in a cauldron of boiling oil and pitch, which the saint entered singing the praises of God as if it were a refreshing bath. Dione then ordered her hair to be cut and for her to be carried naked through the streets of the city to the temple of Apollo. There, the statue of the god shattered in front of Cristina and a splinter killed Dione.

The third perpetrator was a judge named Giuliano: he walled her in a furnace alive for five days. When he reopened the oven, Cristina was found in the company of a group of angels, who by flapping their wings held the fire back the whole time.

Giuliano then commanded a snake charmer to put two vipers and two snakes on her body. The snakes twisted at her feet, licking the sweat from her torments and the vipers attached to her breasts like infants. The snake charmer agitated the vipers, but they turned against him and killed him. Then the fury and frustration of Giuliano came to a head. He ripped the breasts off the girl, but they gushed milk instead of blood. Later he ordered her tongue cut out. The saint collected a piece of her own tongue and threw it in his face, blinding him in one eye. Finally, the imperial archers tied her to a pole and God graciously allowed the pains of the virgin to end: Cristina was killed with two arrows, one in the chest and one to the side and her soul flew away to contemplate the face of Christ.

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In the aforementioned article we addressed the undeniable sexual tension present in the character of Cristina. She is the untouchable female, a virgin whom it’s not possible to deflower by virtue of her mysterious and miraculous body. The torturers, all men, were eager to torture and punish her flesh, but their attacks inevitably backfired against them: in each episode, the men are tricked and impotent when they’re not metaphorically castrated (see the tongue that blinds Giuliano). Cristina is a contemptuous saint, beautiful, unearthly, and feminine while bitter and menacing. The symbols of her sacrifice (breasts cut off and spewing milk, snakes licking her sweat) could recall darker characters, like the female demons of Mesopotamian mythology, or even suggest the imagery linked to witches (the power to float on water), if they were not taken in the Christian context. Here, these supernatural characteristics are reinterpreted to strengthen the stoicism and the heroism of the martyr. The miracles are attributed to the angels and God; Cristina is favored because she accepts untold suffering to prove His omnipotence. She is therefore an example of unwavering faith, of divine excellence.

Without a doubt, the tortures of St. Cristina, with their relentless climax, lend themselves to the sacred representation. Because of this, the “mysteries”, as they are called, have always magnetically attracted crowds: citizens, tourists, the curious, and groups arrive for the event, crowding the narrow streets of the town and sharing this singular euphoria. The mysteries selected may vary. This year on the night of 23rd, the wheel, the furnace, the prisons, the lake, and the demons were staged, and the next morning the baptism, the snakes, the cutting of the tongue, the arrows and the glorification were staged.

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The people are immobile, in the spirit of the tableaux vivant, and silent. The sets are in some cases bare, but this ostentatious poverty of materials is balanced by the baroque choreography. Dozens of players are arranged in Caravaggio-esque poses and the absolute stillness gives a particular sense of suspense.

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In the prison, Cristina is shown chained, while behind her a few jailers cut the hair and amputate the hands of other unfortunate prisoners. You might be surprised by the presence of children in these cruel representations, but their eyes can barely hide the excitement of the moment. Of course, there is torture, but here the saint dominates the scene with a determined look, ready for the punishment. The players are so focused on their role, they seem almost enraptured and inevitably there is someone in the audience trying to make them laugh or move. It is the classic spirit of the Italians, capable of feeling the sacred and profane at the same time; without participation failing because of it. As soon as they close the curtain, everyone walks back behind the statue, chanting prayers.

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The scene with the demons that possess the soul of Urbano (one of the few scenes with movement) ends the nighttime procession and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive moments. The pit of hell is unleashed around the corpse of Urbano while the half-naked devils writhe and throw themselves on each other in a confusion of bodies; Satan, lit in bright colors, encourages the uproar with his pitchfork. When the saint finally appears on the ramparts of the castle, a pyrotechnic waterfall frames the evocative and glorious figure.

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The next morning, on the feast of St. Cristina, the icon traces the same route back and returns to her basilica, this time accompanied by the band.

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Even the martyrdom of snakes is animated. The reptiles, which were once collected near the lake, are now rented from nurseries, carefully handled and protected from the heat. The torturer agitates the snakes in front of the impassive face of the saint before falling victim to the poison. The crowd erupts into enthusiastic applause.

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The cutting of the tongue is another one of those moments that would not be out of place in a Grand Guignol performance. A child holds out a knife to the executioner, who brings the blade to the lips of the martyr. Once the tongue is severed, she tilts her head as blood gushes from her mouth. The crowd is, if anything, even more euphoric.

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Here Cristina meets her death with two arrows planted in her chest. The last act of her passion happens in front of a multitude of hard-eyed and indifferent women, while the ranks of archers watch for her breathing to stop.

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The final scene is the glorification of the saint. A group of boys displays the lifeless body covered with a cloth, while chorus members and children rise to give Cristina offerings and praise.

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One striking aspect of the Mysteries of Bolsena is their undeniable sensuality. It’s not just that young, beautiful girls traditionally play the saint, even the half-naked male bodies are a constant presence. They wear quivers or angel wings; they’re surrounded by snakes or they raise up Cristina, sweetly abandoned to death, and their muscles sparkle under lights or in the sun, the perfect counterpoint to the physical nature of the passion of the saint. It should be emphasized that this sensuality does not detract from the veneration. As with many other folk expressions common in our peninsula, the spiritual relationship with the divine becomes intensely carnal as well.

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The legend of St. Cristina effectively hides an underlying sexual tension and it is remarkable that such symbolism remains, even in these sacred representations (heavily veiled, of course). While we admire the reconstructions of torture and the resounding victories of the child martyr and patron saint of Bolsena, we realize that getting onstage is not only the sincere and spontaneous expression in the city. Along with the miracles they’re meant to remember, the tableaux seem to allude to another, larger “mystery”. These scenes appear fixed and immovable, but beneath the surface there is bubbling passion, metaphysical impulses and life.

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Ecstatic bodies: hagiography and eroticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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La biblioteca delle meraviglie – VII

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Concita De Gregorio

COSÌ È LA VITA – Imparare a dirsi addio

(2011, Einaudi)

Ancora un libro sulla morte, ma questa volta è una piccola gemma del tutto particolare. Una reazione, una ribellione etica e morale quella che anima Concita De Gregorio in questo libro a tratti doloroso, a tratti dolcissimo: la rivolta contro la scomparsa della vecchiaia e della morte dalle nostre quotidianità. La voglia, anzi, la necessità di essere in grado di rispondere alle domande dei nostri bambini: “a quanti anni si muore?”, “ma si muore per sempre?”, “mamma, per favore, potrei morire io prima di te?”. Perché molto spesso sono gli adulti, ad essere impreparati. E così la De Gregorio cerca di trovare un senso sul filo dei ricordi, di vari funerali sorprendenti che hanno trasformato il momento del dolore in occasione di vita e di meraviglia. Di fronte ad un mondo che predica l’estetica dell’eterna giovinezza, avere la possibilità di invecchiare è divenuta ormai una questione di dignità: e così lo è anche imparare il senso della perdita, accettare la possibile sconfitta, e insegnare anche questo ai bambini.

“Penso a Stefania Sandrelli morente che, ne La prima cosa bella, chiede a suo figlio se ha bisogno di mutande, calzini. Poi sospira: “Però ci siamo tanto divertiti”. È una fatica, raccontarsela tutta, ma una grande soddisfazione, un sollievo e una cura. Un’avventura magnifica. Ci siamo tanto divertiti, si dice sempre alla fine”.

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Christian Uva

IL TERRORE CORRE SUL VIDEO

(2008, Rubbettino Editore)

Il sottotiolo del libro di Christian Uva è Estetica della violenza dalle BR ad Al Quaeda. È l’immaginario del terrore che quotidianamente si riversa nelle nostre case attraverso TV, internet, telefonini: il crollo dell’11 Settembre, le minacce dei jihadisti, le esecuzioni sommarie, le decapitazioni degli ostaggi, l’impiccagione di Saddam Hussein ripresa con un videofonino, i video-messaggi di Bin Laden, le foto delle torture di Abu Ghraib, e via dicendo. Un fiume di immagini feroci che costellano e modificano il nostro stesso modo di vedere e interpretare il mondo. Christian Uva analizza il mutare nel tempo di questo genere di audiovisivi iperrealisti, e ne scandaglia l’estetica e la composizione semiotica. Scopriamo così i messaggi nascosti, inaspettati, che quelle immagini elettroniche contengono; capiamo come agiscono a livello visivo, qual è l’idea registica che sta alla base; e comprendiamo quanto l’utilizzo di questi filmati sia paragonabile a un’arma vera e propria, che si infiltra nelle più piccole crepe del nostro immaginario.

La biblioteca delle meraviglie IV

Paolo Albani e Paolo Della Bella

FORSE QUENEAU – ENCICLOPEDIA DELLE SCIENZE ANOMALE

(1999, Zanichelli)

Raymond Queneau (l’autore di Esercizi di stile, I fiori blu e Zazie nel metrò, per intenderci) aveva in progetto di compilare una “Enciclopedia delle scienze inesatte”; la ricerca avrebbe dovuto essere inclusa nei suoi studi sui fous littéraires, cioè quegli autori che non seguono strade battute e “integrate” nella società in cui vivono. Partendo da questa idea, Albani e Della Bella realizzano quello che è a tutt’oggi il più completo e indispensabile compendio enciclopedico sulle scienze anomale. Indispensabile, perché ci permette di curiosare in una galassia semisepolta di teorie bislacche, folli o magari plausibili ma dimenticate; e poi perché approcciarsi a queste scienze “non ortodosse”, se da un lato diverte, e molto, dall’altro spinge a riflettere. Ogni voce dell’enciclopedia è contrassegnata da un simbolo che rimanda a diversi ambiti o categorie, in modo da comprendere subito di cosa stiamo parlando. Le dieci categorie sono le seguenti:

1. Scienze e teorie elaborate da eterodossi scientifici e mattoidi scienziati;
2. Scienze e teorie inventate da letterati e artisti;
3. Scienze e teorie comiche, effimere, parodie di scienze;
4. Scienze della fantascienza e utopiche;
5. Scienze e teorie non riconosciute, marginalizzate, alternative alla scienza ufficiale;
6. Scienze e teorie dimenticate, scomparse, abortite;
7. Scienze potenziali, al confine di altre scienze;
8. Scienze e teorie bizzarre, avanzate da studiosi accademicamente riconosciuti;
9. Scienze occulte, paranormali, magiche, religiose;
10. Studi su pseudoscienze, su mattoidi scienziati ed eterodossi scientifici.

Dalle teorie sulla Terra cava, alla “bestemmiologia”, dalle più disparate cosmogonie alternative fino alla teologia genetica,ogni pagina dell’enciclopedia è un’incessante sorpresa che dimostra come nella storia della scienza ci sia sempre stato qualcuno che cercava di immaginare le cose da una nuova prospettiva. Sarebbe facile, e rassicurante, ridurre molte di queste teorie ad infantilismi o errori concettuali. Siamo abituati a dire: “ieri pensavamo che…, mentre oggi sappiamo che…”, come se la verità fosse stata raggiunta senza ombre di dubbio. Eppure qualsiasi conquista è provvisoria, e ogni sapere viene invariabilmente ampliato, ridefinito, corretto, in un costante affinamento. E tutto questo è possibile perché una moltitudine di uomini, alcuni scienziati, altri artisti, altri pazzoidi strampalati, continuano a porsi domande ed elaborare risposte. Che molte di queste teorie siano bislacche e assurde non fa che testimoniare il fascino dell’infinita ricerca: l’uomo che esce dipinto da queste pagine è, per fortuna, sempre pronto a dimenticare le “verità assodate”, e immaginare possibilità e punti di vista inediti e diversi.

Piero Bocchiaro

PSICOLOGIA DEL MALE

(2009, Laterza)

Perché si fa il male? Chiunque, posto in una determinata condizione, sarebbe in grado di farlo? Il piccolo, apparentemente innocuo libriccino di Piero Bocchiaro racchiude in realtà uno specchio nel quale non vorremmo (ma dovremmo) fissare lo sguardo. Prendendo spunto da quattro dei più famosi e controversi esperimenti di psicologia sociale (l’esperimento di Milgram, quello di Darley e Latané, l’arcinoto esperimento carcerario di Stanford e un ulteriore esperimento di Zimbardo), Bocchiaro estende i risultati della ricerca “in laboratorio” ad alcuni fatti di cronaca, per analizzarli alla luce dei dati sperimentali. Si affrontano quindi il caso del gerarca nazista Eichmann; il delitto Genovese, giovane italo-americana assassinata dinanzi allo sguardo passivo di 38 testimoni; la tragedia dell’Heysel, stadio belga scenario di un sanguinoso scontro fra tifoserie; e le torture di Abu Ghraib, carcere tristemente noto per gli atti disumani perpetrati da alcuni militari americani sui detenuti iracheni. Con linguaggio chiaro e comprensibile anche ai non addetti ai lavori, l’autore ci accompagna attraverso decenni di ricerche psicologiche che indagano le motivazioni della violenza e del mancato soccorso.

Sapevate che se venite aggrediti in un posto affollato avete paradossalmente meno possibilità di essere soccorsi che se l’aggressione accade in un vicolo semideserto? Siete davvero sicuri che rifiutereste l’ordine di un superiore che vi intima di usare violenza su un vostro collega? Quando vedete in televisione episodi di sciacallaggio, giudicate quelle persone dei “vandali” e siete intimamente convinti che voi, una cosa del genere, non la fareste proprio mai? Purtroppo, le ricerche in ambito della psicologia sociale dimostrano che tutti, chi più chi meno, posti nella “giusta” situazione straordinaria, sono capaci e pronti a fare ciò che, in momenti più normali, definirebbero “azioni malvagie”. Scopriamo così che molte delle nostre certezze sono piuttosto fragili: la nostra auto-immagine di persone buone e generose, pronte ad intervenire per aiutare il prossimo, e di certo lontane da pulsioni di violenza, viene a poco a poco messa in discussione. Eppure, nel momento in cui ci rendiamo conto dei meccanismi psicologici che scattano in situazioni di emergenza, ne usciamo rafforzati; e chissà che, grazie a questo piccolo libro, non finiremo magari per riconoscere il “tranello mentale” in cui stiamo cadendo, e riuscire ad agire nel modo in cui davvero desideriamo agire.

Snuff Movies

Di tanto in tanto, nelle notizie di cronaca più sensazionalistiche, fanno capolino i fantomatici snuff movies. Se ne parla da decenni e, nonostante le centinaia di pagine di inchiostro scritte al proposito, l’alone di mistero che li circonfonde resiste. Cosa sono esattamente?

Molti di voi sapranno già la risposta: si tratta di film prodotti a basso budget in cui vengono mostrate sevizie e torture reali, che culminano con l’uccisione del “protagonista” davanti al freddo occhio della videocamera, senza effetti speciali e senza trucchi. La morte violenta e reale della vittima di uno snuff movie garantisce un mercato esclusivo per la pellicola in questione, che viene venduta  a peso d’oro ai collezionisti più morbosi e depravati. Questo, almeno, è quanto si racconta. Sì, perché in verità nessuno ha mai visto uno snuff movie.

Essendo la morte, nella nostra cultura, un tabù progressivamente sostituito dalla sua immagine, sempre più onnipresente, la curiosità di vedere la morte, nell’esatto momento in cui avviene, cresce di continuo. Così, di filmati che mostrano la morte in diretta se ne trovano a centinaia su internet: dai classici intramontabili quali il suicidio di Budd Dwyer (prima grande star del voyeurismo mediatico, suo malgrado), fino alle decapitazioni ad opera dei terroristi islamici, alle atrocità di guerra negli stati sovietici o agli incidenti fatali più agghiaccianti, la morte su internet è presente in abbondanza. Trovare addirittura fotografie e filmati realizzati da alcuni serial killer, che mostrano violenze e smembramenti davvero agghiaccianti, è in definitiva un gioco da ragazzi.

Ma gli snuff sarebbero qualcosa di differente. Lo snuff movie dovrebbe avere alle spalle una vera e propria produzione, ed essere girato con l’unico scopo di mostrare un omicidio reale, senza alcuna altra motivazione che il profitto derivante dalla vendita del film. I filmati in cui vediamo un serial killer uccidere le sue vittime non sono snuff, perché originariamente intesi per uso personale. Lo snuff vero e proprio prevede una organizzazione che intrappola vittime innocenti e le sacrifica in nome di un mercato sotterraneo alla ricerca di emozioni sempre più forti.

Insomma, avete capito l’antifona: qualche miliardario senza scrupoli (solitamente americano) ordina un filmato di morte, e un gruppo di persone organizza un apposito set (solitamente in Sudamerica, dove la vita è più a buon mercato), per realizzarlo con il “contributo” di una ignara attrice assassinata davanti alla macchina da presa. Non so se in questo momento a voi sta suonando un campanello di allarme. Farebbe bene a suonare, con una scritta lampeggiante che dice “LEGGENDA METROPOLITANA”.

Analizziamo i concetti base della storia. Il ricco miliardario è in realtà un morboso e sadico voyeurista. Già questo personaggio (basato sull’idea che i soldi rendono “sporchi” e “diabolici”, e spingono alla ricerca dell’estremo onanismo sadico, visto che i piaceri comuni non bastano più) puzza di cliché. Se esaminiamo il resto della leggenda – la prostituta spesso proveniente dal Terzo Mondo, a sottolineare come la gente povera sia disposta a tutto – ci ritroviamo all’interno dei più triti preconcetti da bar. Unite a questo una spruzzata di superstizione nei riguardi della macchina da presa che “ruba l’anima”, un etto di chiacchiere sull’assenza di scrupolo da parte dei media, ed ecco che la leggenda diventa plausibile agli occhi dei più.

Nessuno snuff è mai stato ritrovato in nessun angolo del mondo, fino ad ora. Né l’FBI, né alcuna altra organizzazione investigativa ne ha mai rilevato traccia. E, nell’era di internet, nessuno snuff è mai affiorato sulla rete. La storia di questa persistente leggenda urbana è particolarmente interessante perché, a differenza di altri miti moderni, ha un inizio ben preciso.

Nel 1971 Michael e Roberta Findlay girano in Cile e Argentina un film intitolato Slaughter. La pellicola cercava di far leva sulla strage di Bel Air, avvenuta due anni prima, nella quale perse la vita anche la moglie di Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, ad opera degli adepti di Charles Manson. Slaughter si rivela un filmaccio a basso budget della peggior specie, ma viene acquistato per una miseria dal distributore Allan Shackleton nel ’72. Per distribuire una tale porcheria, Shackleton (che era della vecchia scuola di distributori di sexploitation, abituato a inventarsi le trovate più mirabolanti pur di vendere una pellicola) decide che ci vuole una mossa di marketing costruita a regola d’arte.

Mette così in piedi una campagna pubblicitaria ad effetto, lasciando intendere che il film sia stato originariamente sequestrato dalla polizia mentre veniva contrabbandato dal Sudamerica agli Stati Uniti, e che presenti nel finale una sequenza di omicidio non simulata. Cambia il titolo della pellicola in Snuff.  Distribuisce addirittura ritagli di giornale a firma di un giornalista, “Vincent Sheehan”, che nei suoi articoli astiosi polemizza contro l’uscita del film nelle sale. Sheehan è ovviamente un altro parto della fervida fantasia di Shackleton.

“L’isteria della stampa fa il resto: i critici di tutto il paese si lanciano in fumiganti filippiche contro il film, prendendo per buone le panzane di Shackleton e dando così credibilità alle voci giudiziosamente sparse dal distributore. Prima ancora di uscire nelle sale, Snuff è già oggetto di scandalo e riprovazione. Il bello è che Shackleton deve ancora preparare il finale vero e proprio del film, che rimpiazzerà quello originario di Slaughter: i cinque minuti finali vengono girati […] in un solo giorno in un appartamento di Manhattan, al costo di 10.000 dollari” (da Sex and Violence, di R. Curti e T. La Selva, 2003, Lindau).

Nonostante Shackleton sia in seguito costretto ad ammettere che si trattava di una bufala, il clamore suscitato dalla pellicola fonda il mito degli snuff movie. Da lì in poi, sarà tutto un susseguirsi di operazioni di bassa exploitation che cercheranno di sfruttare quest’idea geniale. Nei cosiddetti mondo movies italiani molte scene “documentaristiche” sono in realtà ricreate ad arte e spacciate per vere, e così farà anche Ruggero Deodato nel suo famigerato Cannibal Holocaust (1978): il regista chiederà addirittura agli attori (tra i quali figura un giovane Luca Barbareschi, protagonista di una controversa scena in cui spara a un maialino) di scomparire dalla circolazione nei mesi successivi all’uscita del film, per alimentare la leggenda che le loro “morti” non fossero simulate.

Con regolarità, nei decenni successivi, di tanto in tanto spunta qualche sequenza di sevizie che fa il giro del mondo perché ritenuta uno snuff, salvo poi rendersi conto che è stata estrapolata da qualche film horror di bassa lega. Anche l’attore Charlie Sheen viene gabbato nel 1997, quando viene in possesso di uno snuff incredibile: una donna giapponese, legata ad un letto, viene seviziata e fatta lentamente a pezzi da un uomo vestito da samurai. Sheen, sconvolto, consegna il filmato all’FBI, convinto che si tratti di torture vere. Si scoprirà quasi subito che le riprese provengono dalla serie TV giapponese Guinea Pig, girata negli anni ’80 e famosa per i suoi effetti speciali iperrealistici.

Per quanto possa sembrare sorprendente, ancora oggi la leggenda resiste, viva e vegeta, nonostante l’assenza di prove e le continue bufale smascherate di volta in volta. Ancora più strano è che questo mito perduri in un’epoca in cui basta un po’ di esperienza per scovare sulla rete diversi siti che propongono efferatezze e crudeltà (purtroppo) tutt’altro che inventate. Ma gli snuff movies evidentemente hanno un fattore in più, che fa presa sull’immaginario collettivo: come in una favola moderna, ci parlano simbolicamente dell’avidità umana, della mancanza di scrupoli e del pericoloso potere occulto delle immagini.

Letto ad aspirazione

– Amanti sotto vuoto –

Parliamo oggi di un accessorio sessuale davvero particolare utilizzato nell’ambito del BDSM.

Il BDSM è un acronimo che comprende tutta una variegata e ampia gamma di pratiche sessuali: le quattro lettere rimandano infatti a Bondage e Disciplina, Dominazione e Sottomissione, Sadismo e Masochismo. L’elemento fondamentale è il rapporto fra il ruolo del dominatore e del sottomesso, rapporto che provoca piacere e soddisfazione ad entrambi; come poi questo rapporto si sviluppi, si consolidi o si trasformi nel tempo e in quali declinazioni si configuri sta soltanto alle personalità dei due soggetti.

Come è noto, il BDSM può esprimersi in giochi molto “leggeri”, ma può arrivare a pratiche estreme fino a vere e proprie torture. Sempre regolate, comunque, dall’utilizzo di safe words (parole concordate per indicare al partner che sta esagerando e per interrompere immediatamente il gioco), e dai principi fondamentali di sicurezza espressi dall’espressione inglese SSC – Safe, Sane, Consensual (Sicuro, Sano, Consensuale).

Una peculiarità del mondo BDSM è un’attenzione davvero marcata per l’estetica. L’utilizzo di abiti in latex (nero o colorato) esalta le curve del corpo, lo rende lucido e sinuoso, e l’associazione con il metallo brillante delle borchie, gli anelli, i collari e tutto l’armamentario sado-maso ha fatto entrare questo tipo di immaginario anche nel mondo della moda (fetish fashion) e della pubblicità.

Per gli amanti di questo tipo di pratiche, è un piacere indispensabile l’utilizzo di mezzi di contenimento del sottomesso, vale a dire degli accessori per immobilizzare il partner, prima di sottoporlo ai piccoli e grandi tormenti previsti dal copione della propria fantasia sessuale. Si può andare dalle classiche (e banali!) manette, alle complesse geometrie di corde ereditate dall’arte del bondage giapponese, alla pesantezza delle catene o al minimalismo del nastro adesivo in gomma.

Ma la forma di immobilizzazione più particolare e poco conosciuta è il cosiddetto vacuum bed, letteralmente “letto sotto vuoto”. Si tratta di una struttura (plastica o metallica) che tiene tesi due “fogli” di lattice abbastanza ampi da coprire interamente una persona. Il sottomesso si stende fra i due strati di lattice, e può respirare attraverso un tubo collegato con l’esterno. A questo punto, tramite un aspirapolvere o una macchina per il vuoto, l’aria contenuta fra i due lembi di latex viene aspirata, lasciando la vittima completamente bloccata nella gomma, incapace di reagire e istantaneamente immobilizzata.

Il vacuum bed ha alcuni svantaggi che hanno impedito un successo veramente ampio di questo attrezzo. Innanzitutto, è costoso (dai 600 € in su), ingombrante e molto delicato. Il lattice teso è continuamente a rischio di tagli e rotture, il rumore dell’aspirapolvere può essere una distrazione fastidiosa, le intelaiature in plastica sono talvolta troppo fragili e non reggono alla pressione. Inoltre vi sono alcuni pericoli per la salute di chi è “risucchiato” all’interno del letto: la respirazione è particolarmente difficile, il caldo e l’impossibilità di una normale sudorazione all’interno della gomma impediscono sessioni particolarmente lunghe, e la sensazione di claustrofobia può divenire più terrorizzante di quanto ci si aspettasse.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wF1m5gVE04]

Nonostante questi problemi, per molti appassionati il “letto” rimane uno dei metodi più perfezionati di immobilizzazione. Inoltre è innegabile che, fissato nel lattice nella posizione concordata, il corpo del partner divenga una sorta di opera d’arte, con tanto di cornice – e questo ancora una volta prova quanto l’estetica sia fondamentale per gli amanti del BDSM.