Sailing On Top of The Mountains

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.

(Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless, 2009)

This was the genesis of Fitzcarraldo, and chasing this dream Herzog actually lifted a steamboat to the top of a mountain, in order to take it from the  Rio Camisea to the Urubamba; a gigantic effort that entailed death and madness, during what is probably the most legendary and extreme film production in history.

The epic of contrast (here: the boat on the mountain, the sophistication of opera against the barbaric jungle) is what always seduced men into attempting the impossible.
And yet, eighty years before Fitzcarraldo, there was a man to whom this very endeavour seemed not at all visionary. A man who, in this idea of a boat climbing up a mountain slope, saw the future.

Pietro Caminada (1862-1923), was born from the marriage betweeen Gion Antoni Caminada, a Swiss who had emigrated from the Grisons canton to Italy, and Maria Turconi, from Milan. Fascinated since an early age by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci, he studied engineering and was forced, like many others at the time, to sail towards Argentina together with his brother Angelo, looking for a job. After stopping for a brief tour of Rio de Janeiro, however, he was stunned by the city. He came back on the ship only to get hold of his luggage, and said to his brother: “I’m staying here“.

During the fifteen years he spent in Rio, Caminada worked on several projects regarding the town plan, the harbor refurbishing, and transportation: he transformed the Arcos da Lapa Aqueduct, built in 1750, into a viaduct for the transit of the Bonde, the folkloristic yellow tram which caracterized the Brazilian city until 2011. He was even chosen to design from scratch the new capital, Brasilia, sixty years before the town was actually built.
After this brilliant start, Caminada relocated back to Italy, in Rome. In addition to a wife and three daughters, he also brought with him his most ambitious project: making the Alps navigable.

Certainly this idea had a foremost practical purpose. Connecting Genoa to Konstanz via the Splügen Pass would have allowed for an otherwise unthinkable commercial development, as waterways were affordable and inexpensive.
But in Caminada’s proposal there also was an element of challenge, as if he was defying Nature itself; a fact the papers at the time never ceased to stress. An article, which appeared on the magazine Ars et Labor (1906-1912), began like this:

Man always seems to turn his creativity against the firmest and most solid laws of Nature. He is like a rebellious kid who fancies especially what is forbidden.
— Ah, you did not give me wings, he says to Nature, well I will build me some and fly anyway, in spite of your plans! You made my legs weak and slow, well I will build me an iron horse and run faster than your fastest creatures […]. As wonderful as a moving train might be, it does not upset any of the fundamental principles of Nature’s system; but to sail through the mountains, to sail upwards, to sail across steep slopes expecting this miracle to come only from the energy of channeled water, that is something that turns our most certain knowledge of navigation upside down, something contrary to water’s immutable ways of being […].

The beauty of Caminada’s method to bring boats across the Alps resided in its simplicity. It mainly consisted of a variation of the widely used ship-lock system.
If building a lock “stairway” on different levels remained unthinkable, according to the engineer everything would be easier with an inclined plane:

Imagine holding a cylindrical tube filled with water in a vertical position, the water plane will be round: if the pipe is tilted, the water plane, while always horizontal, will acquire a shape which will be the more elliptical and elongated the more the tube gets close to the horizontal position. If water is let out of the pipe, any floating body on the water plane will come down with it, along a diagonal […]. Thus, if the tube is held vertical the floating body will go up or down following a vertical line: if inclined, the floating body in addition to moving up or down will also travel horizontally. On this simple idea of tubular locks I have built my system of inclined canals, with two lanes in opposite directions.

chiuse   chiuse3

Caminada’s double tubular ship-locks ran in parallel, sharing common usptream and downstream water basins.

One lock is full, the other empty. In the full lock is placed the descending ship; in the empty one, the other boat that has to climb up. The two locks communicate at the bottom through channels or syphons. Upon opening the syphon, the water moves from the full lock to the empty one, lowering and carrying downards the boat in the full lock while lifting up the one in the empty lock, until they reach the same level […]. The operation is completed by closing the communication duct and completely emptying the lock with the descending ship, while from the upstream basin comes the necessary water to fill the lock where the upgoing boat is.

This system, patented by Caminada around the world since 1907, had a huge resonance in those years. It was discussed in articles published by international papers, in conventions and meetings, so much so that many thought the project would become real over a very short time.
Cesare Bolla, who lived in Ticino and disapproved deeply of Caminada’s ideas, even wrote a tongue-in-cheek little poem in 1908, making fun of the inevitable, epochal trasformation that was about to hit Lugano:

Outside my tavern, I’ve put on display
A sign on the window, saying: “Seaside Hotel”.
Folks round here, by a sacred fire consumed,
Only by ships and sails are amused.
[…] it won’t be long, for our own sake,
we’ll gaze at the sea instead of this lake.
Ships will pass in great abundance
All headed for the lake of Constance.

The engineer never stopped working on his dream.

«Caminada — as Till Hein notes — struggled for his vision. He went over and over the details of his project, he built miniatures of his lock system, in many variations. And eventually he built a gigantic model, for the great Architecture Exposition in Milan. With unflinching zeal he tried to convince politicians and officials». He was, like the Bündner Tagblatt once wrote, «an erupting volcano» and had «a restless head, with hair down to his shoulders» […].

(T. Gatani, Da Genova a Costanza in barca attraverso le Alpi, La Rivista, n. 12, dicembre 2012)

But the Genoa-Kostanz route imagined by Caminada was bound to collide, on one hand, with the interests of a Swiss “railroad lobby” who endorsed the building of a train line through the Splügen Pass; on the other, there was Austria, which dominated northeastern Italy and was determined to see that the Kingdom of Savoy couldn’t set a direct connection with Germany, be it by train or ship.

In 1923, at the age of sixty, Caminada died in Rome, and his waterways never became a reality.
His project, which only fifteen years before was seen as the upcoming future, ended up like its inventor in the “mass grave” of memories — except for some sporadic exhibition, and a little country road still bearing his name, situated in the vicinity of the airport entitled to his beloved Leonardo Da Vinci.

Looking back today, the most unfortunate and even sarcastic detail of the story might be a prophecy uttered by King Victor Emmanuel III: when Caminada showed him his plans during a private hearing on January 3, 1908, the King replied: “One day I will be long forgotten, but people will still be talking about you“.

Caminada’s motto, which he repeated throughout his life, is however still true. In two simple Latin words, it encompasses every yearning, every tension towards human limits, every courageous desire of exploring the boundaries: Navigare necesse. It is essential to navigate.

For human beings, setting sail towards new horizons still is, and always will be, a necessity and an imperative.

(Thanks, Emiliano!)


What will we feel in the moment of death?
What will come after the initial, inevitable fear?
Shall we sense a strange familiarity with the extreme, simultaneous relaxation of every muscle?
Will the ultimate abandonment remind us of the ancient, primitive annihilation we experience during an orgasm?

Following Epicurus’ famous reasoning (which is, by the way, philosophically and ethically debatable), we should not even worry about such things because when death is present, we are not, and viceversa.
Unknowability of death: as is often said, “no one ever came back” to tell us what lies on the other side. Despite this idea, religious traditions have often described in detail the various phases the soul is bound to go through, once it has stepped over the invisible threshold.

Through the centuries, this has led to the writing of actual handbooks explaining the best way to day.
Western Ars moriendi focused on the moments right before death, while in the East the stress was more on what came after it. But eventually most spiritual philosophies share the fear that the passage might entail some concrete dangers for the spirit of the dying person: demons and visions will try to divert the soul’s attention from the correct path.
In death, one can get lost.

One of the intuitions I find most interesting can be found in Part II of the Bardo Thodol:

O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not
daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it.
From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the natural sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. […] Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come — sounds, lights, or rays — are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms.

It seems to me that this idea, although described in the book in a figurative way, might in a sense resist even to a skeptical, seular gaze. If stripped of its buddhist symbolic-shamanic apparatus, it looks almost like an “objective” observation: death is essentially that natural state from which we took shape and to which we will return. Whatever we shall experience after death — if we are going to experience anything, be it little or much — is ultimately all there is to understand. In poetic terms, it is our own true face, the bottom of things, our intimate reality.

In 1978 Indian animator Ishu Patel, fascinated by these questions, decided to put into images his personal view of what lies beyond. His award-winning short movie Afterlife still offers one of the most suggestive allegorical representations of death as a voyage: a psychedelic trip, first and foremost, but also a moment of essential clarity. The consciousness, upon leaving the body, is confronted with archetypical, shape-shifting figures, and enters a non-place of the mind where nothing is certain and yet everything speaks an instantly recognizable language.

Patel’s artistic and fantastic representation depicts death as a moment when one’s whole life is reviewed, when we will be given a glimpse of the mystery of existence. A beautiful idea, albeit a bit too comforting.
Patel declared to have taken inspiration from Eastern mythologies and from near-death experience accounts (NDE), and this latter detail poses a further question: even supposing that in the moment of death we could witness similar visions, wouldn’t they actually be a mere illusion?

Of course, science tells us that NDE are perfectly coherent with the degenerative neurological processes the brain undergoes when it’s dying. Just like we are now aware of the psychophysical causes of mystic ecstasy, of auto-hypnotic states induced by repeating mantras or prayers, of visions aroused by prolonged fasting or by ingestion of psychoactive substances which are used in many shamanic rituals, etc.
But the physiological explanation of these alteration in consciousness does not undermine their symbolic force.
The sublime beauty of hallucinations lies in the fact that it does not really matter if they’re true or not; what is relevant is the meaning we bestow upon them.

Maybe, after all, only one thing can be really asserted: death still remains a white canvas. It’s up to us what we project on its blank screen.
Afterlife does just that, with the enigmatic lightness of a dance; it is a touching, awe-inspiring ride to the center of all things.

Afterlife, Ishu Patel, National Film Board of Canada

Le gemelle Hogan

Abbiamo già parlato di gemelli siamesi in questo post. Eppure le gemelline Hogan hanno qualcosa di davvero unico e sorprendente.

Nate nel 2006 a Vancouver, in Canada, le due sorelline Tatiana e Krista sono unite per la testa (craniopagia). Non possono essere separate, perché i loro sistemi nervosi sono intimamente  interconnessi, e un’operazione in questo senso potrebbe ucciderle o renderle paralizzate.

Le due gemelline condividono parte dello stesso cervello, e la loro incredibile particolarità è che, pur avendo due personalità distinte, i loro sistemi limbici e nervosi sono intrecciati indissolubilmente. I loro talami, sede delle emozioni, sono fusi assieme. Questo implica una conseguenza sconcertante: una gemellina può avvertire quello che prova, emotivamente, l’altra. Fin dalla nascita, se la mamma faceva il solletico a Krista, anche Tatiana si metteva a ridere. E se a Tatiana davano un ciuccio, anche Krista smetteva di piangere.

Mano a mano che le sorelline Hogan crescono, gli scienziati scoprono “abilità” sempre più insolite. È stato addirittura confermato che possono “vedere” ciascuna attraverso gli occhi dell’altra – vale a dire che le immagini catturate dalla retina di una gemella si formano anche nella corteccia della sorella. Questa simbiosi è più unica che rara, e per questo le gemelle Hogan sono state assaltate dalla stampa, almeno fino a quando i genitori non hanno firmato un’esclusiva per un documentario a cura del National Geographic.

Oggi le bambine, dopo alcuni problemi di salute e qualche operazione (pienamente riuscita), stanno crescendo bene: hanno cominciato a camminare, parlare e contare. Nessuno può predire con certezza come si evolverà la loro personalità. I loro cervelli sono infatti distinti, e al tempo stesso collegati tramite il tronco encefalico e il talamo. Ogni cervello lancia segnali all’altro, e ne riceve. Ovviamente la stampa ha tirato in ballo la fantascienza, la telepatia, eccetera, ma questa è semplicemente la natura nella sua declinazione più bizzarra. E, se le gemelline godranno di buona salute come sembra probabile, la loro vicenda potrà forse segnare una svolta nello studio della formazione di pattern di informazione a livello cerebrale, e perché no, illuminare molti dei quesiti che assillano filosofi e neurologi da decenni. Cos’è l’identità? Come e dove esattamente si forma la coscienza?


Per il momento le gemelline Hogan continuano a giocare, ignare di tutti questi problemi, e sperimentano quotidianamente un grado di intimità di pensiero che nessuno di noi può nemmeno immaginare. E questa, per loro, è l’unica realtà che esiste.

Illusione ottica culturale

Abbiamo visto spesso illusioni ottiche di vario tipo: spirali che sono in realtà cerchi concentrici, segmenti che ci appaiono più lunghi o corti quando sono della stessa misura, punti che “appaiono” all’interno di griglie vuote, eccetera. Sappiamo quindi che i nostri occhi non sono infallibili, e che anzi è piuttosto facile che si ingannino.

Ma l’illusione ottica che vi presentiamo oggi è davvero particolare, perché mostra come la cultura e l’ambiente in cui viviamo influenzino direttamente ciò che vediamo, e come lo interpretiamo. Guardate l’immagine qui sotto. Cosa vedete?

Molto probabilmente avrete visto una famigliola riunita in casa.

All’interno di una serie di test psicologici in Africa Orientale, alcuni ricercatori hanno mostrato ai volontari un bozzetto simile a questo. La quasi totalità dei partecipanti ha riconosciuto la stessa famigliola riunita che abbiamo visto noi, ma con una piccola differenza: per gli africani, le persone disegnate stavano all’aperto, sotto una palma, e la donna teneva una scatola in equilibrio sulla testa.

In una cultura poco abituata ad una architettura fatta di angoli e stanze squadrate, l’immagine viene letta immediatamente come un ambiente esterno. Per gli occidentali, invece, è più automatico interpretare il quadrato come una finestra attraverso la quale si intravede un giardino.

Camera obscura

Abbiamo già parlato della stenoscopia nel post relativo alle straordinarie macchine fotografiche di Wayne Martin Belger. Affrontiamo di nuovo l’argomento perché si tratta della base fisica che ha dato i natali ad arti quali la fotografia e il cinema, e perché la costruzione in proprio di primitive macchine fotografiche sta godendo di nuova vita. Sempre più sono quegli artisti e fotografi che cercano un punto di vista differente e, tornando alle origini, cercano nuovi mezzi espressivi e di ricerca visiva.

Tutta la fotografia si basa sul concetto di “camera oscura”. Non si tratta, come pensano alcuni, di quella stanzetta illuminata di rosso – tante volte vista nei film –  in cui i fotografi sviluppano le loro pellicole come novelli alchimisti. La camera oscura era in origine una vera e propria stanza che aveva un piccolo foro in una delle pareti, e nessun’altra fonte di luce. In questa stanza i pittori e i primi fotografi si ritiravano per lavorare alle loro opere. Infatti la luce del mondo esterno, entrando dal foro sul muro e attraversando il buio andava a proiettarsi, di molto ingrandita, sulla parete opposta. Chiaramente, l’immagine risultava capovolta e ben poco nitida, ma il procedimento aveva qualcosa di misterioso e magico che attirò gli studiosi della visione.

Infatti, come avrete intuito, la camera oscura ricorda molto da vicino il nostro stesso occhio, che altro non è se non un globo forato da una parte nel quale la luce penetra e si proietta capovolta sulla parete opposta alla pupilla, per essere poi percepita dal nervo ottico. (Curiosità etimologica: la pupilla, cioè il foro all’interno dell’iride, significa esattamente piccola pupa, bambolina; questo è dovuto al fatto che se guardate negli occhi qualcuno, all’interno della sua pupilla nera potete vedere una versione miniaturizzata di voi stessi, la vostra “bambolina”, appunto.) Fatto sta che il principio della camera oscura, reso con il tempo più piccolo e maneggevole di un’intera stanza, è tutt’oggi quello che fa funzionare macchine da presa e fotocamere (sempre per restare nell’etimologia, ecco spiegato perché le macchine fotografiche si chiamano “camere”).

Il rinnovato interesse per la fotografia stenoscopica, ossia praticata in questo rudimentale modo, ha fatto sì che molti amatori si costruiscano le loro macchine fotografiche stenopeiche, alcune anche molto fantasiose. Il blog Frankenphotography raccoglie molti esempi di questa nuova verve creativa. Di particolare interesse sono le macchine fotografiche di Francesco Capponi, che è riuscito a ricavare delle vere e proprie camere oscure da oggetti sempre più piccoli, come un cilindro da prestigiatore, un pezzo degli scacchi, un origami, una noce, o un pinolo:

Sempre lo stesso blog contiene un video decisamente affascinante su un moderno e improvvisato esempio di camera oscura:


Abelardo Morrell scatta le sue fotografie con questo metodo, talvolta riuscendo a capovolgere l’immagine (così da farla ritornare “dritta”) mediante l’uso di un sistema di specchi.

Il metodo ha vantaggi e svantaggi. Difficile è calcolare con precisione il tempo necessario per impressionare la pellicola attraverso un foro stenopeico, ma si parla anche di alcune ore. Il foro, inoltre, se non accuratamente forgiato, può dare luogo a fenomeni di diffrazione; per diminuirli occorrerebbe ridurre il diametro del foro, aumentando però così i tempi di esposizione. Le immagini comunque non saranno mai nitide e precise.

Dall’altro canto, la profondità di campo è illimitata (perché non si utilizzano lenti) e gli stessi difetti (sfocatura, approssimazione ed evanescenza dell’immagine) possono essere utilizzati come scelta espressiva. Le fotografie così ottenute sono infatti imprevedibili, evocative e fragili al tempo stesso, e hanno un sapore antico che le moderne macchine digitali riescono a riprodurre soltanto dopo un lungo lavoro di post-produzione.

Ringraziamo Frankenphotography per le immagini.