Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.
This week you can come and meet me in two particular events.
On November 9th at 6 pm I will be in Bologna, at the extraordinary wunderkammer/library Mirabilia in via de ‘Carbonesi, to talk about my two guide books on Paris and London.
The library is called Mirabilia, my book series is called Mirabilia — you can’t go wrong.
The next day (10 November) I will move to Pescara where I have been invited for the annual edition of the book festival FLA.
At 22.30 at the aptly named Bizarre Club I will hold a talk entitled Un terribile incanto: il Macabro e il Meraviglioso tra arte, scienza e sacro (“A Terrible Enchantment: The Macabre and the Wonderful between Art, Science and the Sacred”).
I will be honest: talking about Thanatos in a night club dedicated to alternative sexuality and to the cultural implications of Eros, I think it’s an appropriate and remarkable goal for my career as a specialist of the bizarre!
Why has the new millennium seen the awakening of a huge interest in “cabinets of wonder”? Why does such an ancient kind of collecting, typical of the period between the 1500s and the 1700s, still fascinate us in the internet era? And what are the differences between the classical wunderkammern and the contemporary neo-wunderkammern?
I have recently found myself tackling these subjects in two diametrically opposed contexts.
The first was dead serious conference on disciplines of knowledge in the Early Modern Period, at the University of PAdua; the second, a festival of magic and wonder created by a mentalist and a wonder injector. In this last occasion I prepared a small table with a micro-wunderkammer (really minimal, but that’s what I could fit into my suitcase!) so that after the talk the public could touch and see some curiosities first-hand.
Two traditionally quite separate scenarios – the academic milieu and the world of entertainment – both decided to dedicate some space to the discussion of this phenomenon, which strikes me as indicative of its relevance.
So I thought it might be interesting to resume, in very broad terms, my speech on the subject for the benefit of those who could not attend those meetings.
For practical purposes, I will divide the whole thing into two posts.
In this first one, I will trace what I believe are the key characteristics of historical wunderkammern – or, more precisely, the key concepts worth reflecting upon.
In the next post I will address XXI Century neo-wunderkammern, to try and pinpoint what might be the reasons of this peculiar “rebirth”.
Evidently, the fundamental concept for a wunderkammer, beginning from the name itself, was the idea of wonder; from the aristocratic cabinets of Ferdinand II of Austria or Rudolf II to the more science-oriented ones like Aldrovandi‘s, Cospi‘s, or Kircher‘s, the purpose of all ancient collections was first and foremost to amaze the visitor.
It was a way for the rich person who assembled the wunderkammer to impress his court guests, showing off his opulence and lavish wealth: cabinets of curiosities were actually an evolution of treasure chambers (schatzkammern) and of the great collections of artworks of the 1400s (kunstkammer).
This predilection of rare and expensive objects generated a thriving international commerce of naturalistic and ethnological items cominc from the Colonies.
The Theatre of the World
But wunderkammern were also meant as a sort of microcosm: they were supposed to represent the entirety of the known universe, or at least to hint at the incredibly vast number of creatures and natural shapes that are present in the world. Samuel Quiccheberg, in his treatise on the arrangement of a utopian museum, was the first to use the word “theatre”, but in reality – as we shall see later on – the idea of theatrical representation is one of the cardinal concepts in classical collections.
Because of its ability to represent the world, the wunderkammer was also understood as a true instrument of research, an investigation tool for natural philosophers.
The System of Knowledge
The organization of a huge array of materials did not initially follow any specific order, but rather proceeded from the collector’s own whims and taste. Little by little, though, the idea of cataloguing began to emerge, which at first entailed the distinction between three macro-categories known as naturalia, artificialia and mirabilia, later to be refined and expanded in different other classes (medicalia, exotica, scientifica, etc.).
This ever growing need to distinguish, label and catalogue eventually led to Linnaeus’ taxonomy, to his dispute with Buffon, all the way to Lamarck, Cuvier and the foundation of the Louvre, which marks the birth of the modern museum as we know it.
The Aesthetics of Accumulation
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known aspect of wunderkammern is the cramming of objects, the horror vacui that prevented even the tiniest space from being left empty in the exposition of curiosities and bizarre artifacts gathered around the world.
This excessive aesthetic was not just, as we said in the beginning, a display of wealth, but aimed at astounding and baffling the visitor. And this stunned condition was an essential moment: the wonder at the Universe, that feeling called thauma, proceeds certainly from awe but it is inseparable from a sense of unease. To access this state of consciousness, from which philosophy is born, we need to step outof our comfort zone.
To be suddenly confronted with the incredible imagination of natural shapes, visually “assaulted” by the unthinkable moltitude of objects, was a disturbing experience. Aesthetics of the Sublime, rather than Beauty; this encyclopedic vertigo is the reason why Umberto Eco places wunderkammern among his examples of “visual lists”.
Conservation and Representation
One of the basic goals of collecting was (and still is) the preservation of specimens and objects for study purposes or for posterity. Yet any preservation is already a representation.
When we enter a museum, we cannot be fully aware of the upstream choices that have been made in regard to the exhibit; but these choices are what creates the narrative of the museum itself, the very “tale” we are told room after room.
Multiple options are involved: what specimens are to be preserved, which technique is to be used to preserve them (the result will vary if a biological specimen is dried, texidermied, or put in a preserving fluid), how to group them, how to arrange their exhibit?
It is just like casting the best actors, choosing the stage costumes, a particular set design, and the internal script of the museum.
The most illuminating example is without doubt taxidermy, the ultimate simulacrum: of the original animal nothing is left but the skin, stretched on a dummy which mimics the features and posture of the beast. Glass eyes are applied to make it more convincing. That is to say, stuffed animals are meant to play the part of living animals. And when you think about it, there is no more “reality” in them than in one of those modern animatronic props we see in Natural History Museums.
But why do we need all this theatre? The answer lies in the concept of domestication.
Domestication: Nature vs. Culture
Nature is opposed to Culture since the time of ancient Greeks. Western Man has always felt the urge to keep his distance from the part of himself he perceived as primordial, chaotic, uncontrollable, bestial. The walls of the polis locked Nature outside, keeping Culture inside; and it’s not by chance that barbarians – seen as half-men half-beasts – were etymologically “those who stutter”, who remained outside of the logos.
The theatre, an advanced form of representation, was born in Athens likely as a substitute for previous ancient human sacrifices (cf. Réné Girard), and it served the same sacred purposes: to sublimate the animal desire of cruelty and violence. The tragic hero takes on the role of the sacrificial victim, and in fact the evidence of the sacred value of tragedies is in the fact that originally attending the theatrical plays was mandatory by law for all citizens.
Theatre is therefore the first attempt to domesticate natural instincts, to bring them literally “inside one’s home” (domus), to comprehend them within the logos in order to defuse their antisocial power. Nature only becomes pleasant and harmless once we narrate it, when we turn it into a scenic design.
And here’s why a stuffed lion (which is a narrated lion, the “image” of a lion as told through the fiction of taxidermy) is something we can comfortably place in our living room without any worry. All study of Nature, as it was conceived in the wunderkammern, was essentially the study of its representation.
By staging it, it was possible to exert a kind of control over Nature that would have been impossible otherwise. Accordingly, the symbol of the wunderkammern, that piece that no collection could do without, was the chained crocodile — bound and incapable of causing harm thanks to the ties of Reason, of logos, of knowledge.
It is worth noting, in closing this first part, that the symbology of the crocodile was also borrowed from the world of the sacred. These reptiles in chains first made their apparition in churches, and several examples can still be seen in Europe: in that instance, of course, they were meant as a reminder of the power and glory of Christ defeating Satan (and at the same time they impressed the believers, who in all probability had never seen such a beast).
A perfect example of sacred taxidermy; domestication as a bulwark against the wild, sinful unconscious; barrier bewteen natural and social instincts.
(Continues in Part Two)
There are places where the sediments of Time deposited, through the centuries, making the atmosphere thick and stratified like the different, subsequent architectural elements one can detect within a single building: in these places, the past never seems to have disappeared, it seems to survive — or at least we believe we can feel its vestigial traces.
Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato (Parma) is one of such majestic places of wonder: it has been the scene of conspiracies, battles, sieges, as well as — certainly — of laughters, romance, banquets and joy; a place full of art (Parmigianino was summoned to paint the fresco in the Room of Diane and Actaeon in 1523) and science (at the end of XIX Century the count Giovanni Sanvitale installed an incredible optical chamber inside the South tower, a device still functioning today).
Here, History is something you breathe. Walking through the rooms of the castle, you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter one of those faded ghosts who incessantly repeat the same gesture, trapped in a sadness deeper than death itself.
And it’s right inside these walls and towers that the first edition of Stupire!, the Festival of Wonders, will be held: three days of surprising shows, workshops, experiments, meetings with mentalists and mad scientists. The purpose of the event is to spread culture in entertaining and unexpected ways, using the tools of illusionism.
Behind this initiative, supported by the municipality of Fontanellato and organized in collaboration with the Circolo Amici della Magia di Torino, are two absolutely extraordinary minds: Mariano Tomatis and Francesco Busani.
If you follow my blog, you may already know them: they appeared on these pages more than once, and they both performed at my Academy of Enchantment.
Mariano Tomatis (one of my personal heroes) is the fertile wonder injector who is revolutionizing the world of magic from the outside, so to speak. Half historian of illusionism, half philosopher of wonder, and for another additional half activist of enchantment, Mariano fathoms the psychological, sociological and political implications of the art of magic, succeeding in shifting its focal point towards a new balance. Starting from this year, his Blog of Wonders is twinned to Bizzarro Bazar.
If Mariano is the “theorist” of the duo, Francesco Busani is the true mentalist, experienced in bizarre magick, investigator of the occult and unrivaled raconteur. As he explained when I interviewed him months ago, he was among the first magicians to perform one-to-one mentalism in Italy.
This partnership has already given birth to Project Mesmer, a hugely successful mentalism workshop. The Stupire! festival is the crowning result of this collaboration, perhaps their most visionary endeavour.
I will have the honor of opening the Festival, together with Mariano, on May 19.
During our public meeting I will talk about collecting curiosities, macabre objects, ancient cabinets of wonder and neo-wunderkammern. I will also bring some interesting pieces, directly from my own collection.
In the following days, besides Busani’s and Tomatis’ amazing talks performances (you really need to see them to understand how deep they can reach through their magic), the agenda features: Diego Allegri‘s trickeries and shadow puppets, street magic by Hyde, Professor Alchemist and his crazy experiments; Gianfranco Preverino, among the greatest experts in gambling and cheating, will close the festival.
But the event will not be limited to the inside of the castle. On Saturday and Sunday, the streets of Fontanellato will become the scene for the unpredictable guerrilla magic of the group Double Joker Face: surprise exhibitions in public spaces, baffling bystanders.
If that wasn’t enough, all day long on Saturday and Sunday, just outside the Rocca, those who seek forgotten oddities will have a chance to sift through a magic and antique market.
Lastly, Mariano Tomatis’ motto “Magic to the People!” will result in a final, very welcome abracadabra: all the events you just read about will be absolutely free of charge (until seats are available).
Three days of culture, illusionism and wonder in a place where, as we said in the beginning, History is all around. A week-end that will undoubtedly leave the participants with more enchanted eyes.
Because the world does not need more magic, but our own gaze does.
Here you can find the detailed schedule, complete with links to reserve seats for free.
The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.
Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.
Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.
This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.
And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.
What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.
You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.
I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.
This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.
In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”
As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers.
(A. Rimbaud, The Drunken Boat, 1871)
In the hypotetical Museum of Failure I proposed some time ago, the infamous destroyer USS William D. Porter (DD-579) would hold a place of honor.
The account of its war exploits is so tragicomic that it sounds like it’s scripted, but even if some anecdotes are probably no more than legends, the reputation the ship earned in its two years of service was sadly deserved.
The career of “Willie Dee“, as the Porter was nicknamed, started off with an exceptional task.
Soon after its launch, the ship was assigned to a top-secret, crucial mission: escorting Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic ocean — infested by nazi submarines — to North Africa, where the President was to meet Stalin and Churchill for the first time. The summit of the Three Greats would later become known as the Tehran Conference, and together with the following meetings (the most famous one held in Yalta) contributed to change the European post-war layout.
Yet, on account of Willie Dee, the meeting almost failed to happen.
Destroyers are agile and fast ships, specifically designed to shield and protect bigger vessels. On November 12, 1943, the Porter was ordered to join the rest of the fleet escorting USS Iowa, a 14,000-tons battleship on which the President had already boarded, together with the Secretary of State and the executive top brass.
Willie Dee‘s crew at the time consisted of 125 sailors, under Captain Wilfred Walter’s command. But in times of war the Army needed a vast number of soldiers, and therefore enlisted boys who were still in high school, or had only worked in a family farm. A huge part of military accidents was caused by inexperienced rookies, who has had no proper training and were learning from their own mistakes, directly in the field. Nearly all of Willie Dee‘s crew had never boarded a ship before (including the 16 officials, of which only 4 had formerly been at sea), and this top-secret-mission baptism by fire surely increased the crew’s psychological pressure.
Anyway, right from the start Willie Dee made its debut under a bad sign. By forgetting to weigh anchor.
As Captain Walter was maneuvering to exit the Norfolk harbor, a terrible metal noise was heard. Looking out, the crew saw that the anchor had not been completely raised and, still hanging on the ship’s side, had tore out the railings of a nearby sister ship, destroying a life raft and ripping up other pieces of equipment. The Willie Dee had suffered just some scratches and, being already late, Captain Walter could only offer some quick apologies before setting sail towards the Iowa, leaving it to port authorities to fix the mess.
But it wasn’t over. During the next 48 hours, the Willie Dee was going to fall into a maelstrom of shameful incompetence.
After less than a day, just as the Iowa and the other ships were entering a zone notoriously infested by German U-boats, a heavy explosion shook the waters. All units, convinced they had fallen under attack, frantically began diversion maneuvers, as radar technicians in high alert scanned the ocean floor in search for enemy submarines.
Until the Iowa received an embarassed message from Captain Walter: the detonation had been caused by one of their depth charges, accidentally dropped into the water because the safe had not been correctly positioned. Luckily the explosion had not injured the ship.
As if accidentally dropping a bomb was not enough, things got even more desperate in the following hours. Soon after that a freak wave washed one of the sailors overboard, who was never found. Not one hour after that tragedy, the Willie Dee‘s boiler room suffered a mechanical failure and lost power, leaving the destroyer plodding along in a backward position behind the rest of the convoy.
At this point, aboard the Iowa the anxiety for Willie Dee‘s blunders was tangible. Under the scrutiny of all these high personalities, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, personally took the radio microphone to reprimand Captain Walter. The skipper, realizing that the opportunities of a high-profile mission were quickly turning into a catastrophe, humbly vowed to “improve the ship’s performance“. And in a sense he kept his word, by causing the ultimate disaster.
Even proceeding at full speed, it would have taken more than a week for the fleet to reach destination. It was therefore of crucial importance to carry out war drills, so that the (evidently inexperienced) crews could prepare for a potential surprise attack.
On November 14, east of Bermuda, the Iowa Captain decided to show Roosevelt and the other passengers how his ship was able to defend itself against an air attack. Some weather balloons were released as targets, as the President and other officials were invited to seat on the deck to enjoy the show of cannons taking them down one by one.
Captain Walter and his crew stood watching from 6,000 yards away, growing eager to participate in the drill and to redeem their ship’s name. When Iowa missed some balloons, which drifted into Willie Dee‘s fire range, Walter ordered his men to shoot them down. At the same time, he commanded a torpedo drill.
Belowdecks two members of the crew, Lawton Dawson and Tony Fazio, made sure the primers were removed from the torpedos — otherwise they would have actually launched — and gave the OK signal to the deck. The bridge commander ordered fire, and the first “fake” torpedo was activated. Then the second, “fire!“. And the third.
At that point, the bridge commander heard the last sound he’d wanted to hear. The unmistakable hiss of a real torpedo trailing away.
To fully understand the horror the official must have felt in that moment, we must remember one detail. Usually in a drill one of the nearby ships was chosen as a practice target. The closest target was the Iowa.
The Porter had just fired a torpedo towards the President of the United States.
Aboard the Willie Dee, hell broke loose. One lieutenant ran up to Captain Walter, and asked him if he had given permission to fire a torpedo. His answer was certainly not a historic war dictum: “Hell, No, I, I, aaa, iiiiii — WHAT?!“.
Only a couple of minutes were left before the torpedo hit Iowa‘s side, sinking it together with America’s most important personalities.
Walter immediately ordered to raise the alarm, but the strictest radio silence had been commanded to avoid the risk of interception, as the fleet sailed in a dangerous zone. So the signalman decided to use a flashing light instead.
But, falling prey to a justifiable panic, the young sailor who had to warn Iowa of the fatal mistake got quite confused. The mothership began receiving puzzling, uncomprehensible messages: “A torpedo is moving away from Iowa“, and shortly after “Our ship is going in reverse at full speed“.
Time was running out, and realizing that Morse code was not a viable option, Walter decided to break radio silence. “Lion, Lion, come right!” “Identify and say again. Where is submarine?” “Torpedo in the water! Lion, come right! Emergency! Come right, Lion! Come right!”
At that point the torpedo had already been spotted from the Iowa. The ship made an emergency manoeuvre, increasing speed and turning right, as all cannons shot towards the incoming torpedo. President Roosevelt asked his Secret Service bodyguard to move his wheelchair to the railing, so he could better see the missile. According to the story, the bodyguard even took out his gun to shoot the torpedo, as if his bullets could stop its course.
Meanwhile, over the Willie Dee a ghastly silence had fallen, as everyone stood frozen, holding their breath and waiting for the explosion.
Four minutes after being fired, the missile exploded in water, not far from Iowa, providentially without damaging it. The President later wrote in his diary: “On Monday last a gun drill. Porter fired a torpedo at us by mistake. We saw it — missed it by 1,000 feet“.
With the best will in the world, such an accident could not be overlooked — also because at that point there was a strong suspicion that the Willie Dee crew might have been infiltrated, and that the claimed clumsy error was in fact an actual assassination plot. So the Iowa ordered the Porter out of the convoy and sent it back to a US base in Bermuda; Walter and his crew shamefully made a u-turn and, once they entered the harbor, were greeted by fully armed Marines who placed them all under arrest. Days of interrogations and investigations followed, and Dawson, the 22-tear-old sailor who forgot to remove the primer from the torpedo, was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour. When he heard of the sentence, Roosevelt himself intervened to pardon the poor boy.
The rest of the convoy in the meantime reached Africa unharmed, and Roosevelt (despite another, but this time real, attempted assassination) went on to sign with Churchill and Stalin those deals which, once the war was over, would radically change Europe.
The Willie Dee was sent off Alaskan shores, where it could not cause much trouble, and in time it became some sort of a sailor’s myth. Other unverified rumors began circulating around the “black sheep” of the US Navy, such as one about a drunk sailor who one night allegedly shot a 5-inch shell towards a military base on the coast, destroying a commander’s front yard. Humorous, exaggerated legends that made it a perfect scapegoat, the farcical anti-heroine into which the anxiety of failure could be sublimated.
The resonance of Willie Dee’s infamous deeds preceded it in every harbor, where invariably the ship was saluted by radioing the ironic greeting “Don’t shoot! We’re Republicans!“.
The ship eventually sank during the Battle of Okinawa — ingloriously taken down by an already-crashed plane which exploded under its hull.
On that day, more than a seaman probably heaved a sigh of relief. The unluckiest ship in American history was finally resting at the bottom of the ocean.
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
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.
On November 22, at 4pm inside the beautiful Civic Museum in Reggio Emilia, I will talk about macabre wonders together with historian Carlo Baja Guarienti.
Our chat is part of a series of lectures called Il Tè delle Muse (Tea with the Muses): I find this title quite gorgeous, because the ironic reference to the etymology of “museum” highlights its original function of being a place of enchantment and inspiration. There is therefore no better place to talk about what I have often called dark wonder; on these webpages I have been suggesting for years that we should overcome the prejudice attached to the word “macabre”, and understand that many of the so-called “morbid” curiosities can turn out to be noble and sometimes necessary passions. We will be discussing exoticism, new trends, wunderkammern and intersections between art, science and the sacred.
Here is the official page for the event.
The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?“
I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?
Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.
The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.
Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.
The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.
And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.
Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).
Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.
Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.
Death tells us some incredible stories
Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.
Death is a dialogue
Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).
Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead.
David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.
Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.
My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.
Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
“Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.