Book Review: La Veglia Eterna
Ivan Cenzi, the Italian blogger behind Bizzarro Bazar was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his new book, La Veglia Eterna, which is a stunning book of photos and essays on the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.
I thoroughly enjoyed it and if you like the types of things I write about here, it’s definitely worth seeking out. It would be worth it for Carlo Vannini’s photographs alone. Some look like they could be skeleton Vogue spreads. Others are more abstract; dusty, decomposing skin looks like lunar landscapes. The photos show an obvious respect for their subjects- you really get a sense of each body’s humanity and even a trace of personality in each image.
The text is equally excellent. It’s written in both Italian and English (so it’s perfect if you’re like me and looking to work on your Italian). In a lot of bilingual books the non-native writing is clunky but I was happy to find that that wasn’t the case here. The essays are short but heavy on historical and anthropological information. Those of you who enjoyed my piece on the putridarium in Rome will be delighted to know that Ivan discusses both double burial and the putridarium where these famous mummies began their journey. There’s very little information on both subjects available, so pick up this book if sifting though Italian academic journals isn’t your thing.
La Veglia Eterna is the fist in a series of books from Bizzarro Bazar. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Click the British flag here to see the English ordering page.
Rare Photos of Corpse Theatre
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on sacred representations. These were elaborate theatrical scenes staged by Catholic religious orders to educate and entertain the public with stories from the bible or the lives of saints. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas manger scene with real animals or seen a passion play during Holy Week, you get the gist.
On All Souls Day, the Catholic feast day associated with the dead, the sacred representations were frequently put on by religious orders that had access to a large number of dead bodies- like ones that worked in hospitals or ones responsible for burying the poor. These brothers would stage their representations in their crypts and cemeteries and use the corpses as part of the scene.
Remember Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte? You can still visit what’s left of their confraternity’s crypt today even though the majority of it was destroyed by the construction of the Tiber embankments. But these incredible photos from the 1800s show what the crypt looked like when it was still used by the Confraternity of Prayer and Death- and order that was responsible for burying migrant workers who died of malaria in the fields outside of Rome.
When it came to sacred representations, they were the Broadway of their time. The confraternity employed set designers, costume designers, machinists, etchers, and wax sculptors to make extremely realistic and explicit scenes of death, purgatory and the final judgment with the bodies they collected. Popes and kings attended and the public lined up down the street. The first photo shows their scene depicting the Martyrdom of Diodorus and Mariano in 1865. The second image is an etching of the last representation they mounted before their grounds were destroyed- The Vision of Ezekiel in 1868.
After Rome joined unified Italy in 1870, stricter burial laws were enforced for the sake of public health so this holiday tradition died out.
(Images from the Archives of the Roman National History Society)
My homegirl, Caitlin Doughty, is always there when I wanna talk about the public crypts of Italy, incorrupt saints or yak about transi tombs.
But in real life she’s a licensed, practicing mortician. She doesn’t just ruminate on death in art and history; she has a more immediate agenda. She envisions a wold where death isn’t taboo. Where it’s not considered morbid or weird to think about something that will happen to every single one of us. Her vision is a new-old way of death, where caring for our loved ones’ bodies also means caring for the grieving and caring for the planet we share.
I can’t recommend her book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, enough. It’s funny, fascinating, and will make you reconsider the way we deal with death- culturally and personally.
The Oracles of Rome: Two Architectural Oddities to Help You (Yes, YOU!) Predict the Apocalypse
If the book of Revelations feels a little vague and you need to know when to finish that missile silo you’ve been working on in the backyard, just take a trip to Rome. Local legend has it that two unusual pieces of architecture are counting down the days until the end of the world.
Read all about it here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-oracles-of-rome-two-architectural-oddities-to-help-you-predict-the-apocalypse
(Picture: Hand colored woodcut, Four Riders of the Apocalypse, c. 1478, State Library of Victoria)
avvoltoio said: Thanks for the follow. I really love your blog. Catholic relics and saint worship practices really fascinate me.
Thanks for your nice note! I was having a pretty bad day earlier— someone sent me gross porn this morning so I was a little hesitant to even open my mailbox. I’m so glad I did though. I thought your blog was really interesting! I always enjoy seeing what kinds of things people who follow me are interested in. You guys are a generally such a weird/smart/delightful bunch. I won’t let the weirdos get me down. Here are some relics from Il Gesù in Rome.
I love Los Angeles. I love everything about living here… except for the fact that we’re a little light on the relics. Here’s the story of St. Vibiana, LA’s only full-body relic, straight from the Roman catacombs.
She had a much better look in 1951 if you ask me. It’s a shame they eschewed the humanizing wax effigy for the new, minimalist (and matchy-matchy) tomb.
(Top photo from USC Libraries at the old St. Vibiana Cathedral, bottom photo by me at the new Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral.)
I’m very excited to announce a talk I’ll be giving as part of Death Salon San Francisco October 11th! Come see The Public Corpse: Exploring Death Rituals and the Spaces Dedicated to Them in Rome. I’ll be taking attendees on a journey through crypts, putridarium, purgatorial societies and the shrines of the incorrupt where we’ll see how this seemingly macabre culture actually celebrates life.
You can get tickets here and check out the rest of the speaker lineup. There are going to be some amazing presenters like Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, Santa Muerte expert, Caitlin Doughty of Ask a Mortician, and Dr. Paul Koudounaris, bon vivant and author of Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death.
I can’t wait. Hope to see some of you there!
The photo is the crypt at Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (currently closed for renovation) by me.
The skeletons are back! Now they’re on Slate, where they can remind even more people what lies ahead for all of us.
Check them out here.
New Feature: The Bookshelf
Back when I started this blog and had exactly 0 readers (and basically assumed it would stay that way forever) I just wrote journal entries. I posted camera-phone pictures I took while traveling and wrote captions that were just my impressions or interesting tidbits I found on the internet or something I read on a plaque somewhere. But as it turns out, other people are interested in dusty old church corners so I need to be a little more rigorous since it’s not just for me.
But I’m no academic. I have an MFA in stage design which hardly qualifies me to talk about this stuff with any real authority. I’m more of a travel writer who occasionally likes to ruminate on history and how these pieces of the past fit into life today. So you should probably know where I’m getting my information that doesn’t come directly from my experiences. Lately I’ve started listing the more obscure papers and articles I read at the bottom of the entry. But I also want to supplement my article-specific sources with an ongoing list of books that I’ve read and tend to pull off the shelf a lot.
That’s where the bookshelf comes in. If you’d like to learn more about saints and relics, I highly recommend diving into any of the titles listed. I’ll keep the photos, first-hand accounts and folklore coming.
Caitlin the mortician and I are talkin’ transi over at The Order of the Good Death. (Incidentally Talkin’ Transi is also the name of our pretend cable access show.) Transi tombs are these really great medieval funerary monuments that actually show the deceased in a state of decay. And as it turns out, Caitlin isn’t just a licensed mortician, she’s also a medieval scholar. (Don’t believe me? Pick up Morbid Anatomy’s Anthology and read her serious academic essay on demon babies.)
Caitlin posted the first photo, an early transi tomb from Avignon, as part of her #MementoMoriMonday series. It instantly reminded me of my favorite example of the genre, which you can see in the second photo. (From Wikimedia by Pline) It’s at St. Gervais et St. Protais in Gisor, France, a short train ride away from Paris.
After reading more about these two fascinating examples I found out that the guy who was buried beneath Caitlin’s tomb, Cardinal Lagrange, was quite a character. He picked a fight with the pope after he ignored a Papal Bull against dismembering corpses. Who’s corpse did he dismember, you ask? HIS OWN. He specified in his will that he wanted his bones boiled and buried in Amiens and a separate flesh burial in Avignon.
I don’t know if he succeeded with that request, but thanks to his tomb we know what he would have looked like rotting, if he rotted after all.
Today Me, Tomorrow You
Let me take you on a tour of all my favorite Baroque tombs in Rome. Read the full article and see even more photos here.
All photos by me.
I’m Miss World
Let me introduce you to Ms. World and The Prince of Darkness, two German allegorical figures who like to skulk around cathedrals. They’re definitely hiding something behind their backs. (Yep, it’s snakes!)
Now that I’m done writing this piece, hopefully I can get that Hole song out of my head.
Read the whole story over at Atlas Obscura.
Just in time for Bastille Day, here’s my latest piece on a crypt full of blood and bones in Paris. Special thanks to Marie-Christine Pénin who created the wonderful Tombes et Sepultures website. She graciously allowed me to use her photos (including the one above). The crypt is only open for one tour a week and when I visited I somehow wound up on a tour for nuns. (I only stuck out a little bit…) I didn’t feel right taking pictures even though they were allowed so I don’t have my own to share this time.
Wanna know who these ladies are? Or maybe what’s up with that pile of bodies and torture devices in the background?
Follow me on Facebook and I’ll tell you. Plus you’ll get a random assortment of other pictures, thoughts, and news items.
This post might activate your sweet tooth or put you off dessert forever. It really depends on how you feel about eating the tears, breasts, bones and eyes of the saints (metaphorically of course).
These are my top ten favorite desserts created specifically for saints’ feast days. Check them all out here.
If you like it, you should also check out my friend (and fellow Death Salon board member’s) blog Nourishing Death. She looks at relationship between food, death rituals and culture. It’s really fascinating.