THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN: Art, Freemasonry and eternal life
As I often do these days, I woke up far too early and staggered into the bathroom. In the mirror, the strong electric light revealed my worn and aged features. So this was me. This is the way I look. Deepening wrinkles, sunken cheeks, loose skin, stubble. Slowly but relentlessly my eyelids and crannies are about to hide my grey-blue eyes. It annoys me that the corners of my mouth, in the manner of aging men, are turned down. Someone recently told me that I was beginning to look like Marlon Brando in his role as the Godfather. I do not know if it's flattering, or not. Under all this decay is my skull, with its white, hard bones, unaffected by time. Thought about T.S. Eliot's poem, Whispers of Immortality:
Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
The skull, symbol of the fear of death, with its permanent grin behind meat and skin, which constantly age and change. It seems to sneer at us, we - the prematurely doomed creatures which move towards an inexorable death. Death defeats everything. As the inscriptions in the Capuchin grave chambers here in Rome dryly remark: "As we are now, you will become.” Or as Hamlet deliberates in his worn, but beautiful soliloquy:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.
In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, death is ever present. In his existential despair Hamlet cries out: "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! " However, decomposition is not so beautiful. Few things are as loathsome as a swollen, rotting cadaver – stinking and blue-black, with fractured abdomen and belching guts. Humans marvel at why a rotting carcass has be so weirdly disgusting. Decomposing corpses are far from being as common in the art as the dry, much more beautiful skeletons, from the Greek word for desiccated - σκελετός, skeletós.
If decaying bodies occur in the arts it is mainly as memento mori "remember that you are mortal." To scare people into realizing the need to take care of their lives and during their brevity not cause pain to others, this is achieved by depicting death as disgusting as possible. What can be more repulsive than a rotting, stinking carrion? In art, tomb sculptures presenting rotting carcasses are called transi, or as in Flanders, where they were relatively common in the sixteenth century - l'homme à moulons, "man eaten by worms".
In Buddhism the sight of rotting bodies may be used as a theme for meditation concerning the decay of everything, a means to realize that life is really an abomination. In the Satipatthana Sutta, originally written in Pali sometime around 20 BC, it is told how the Buddha instructed his disciples how to meditate in order to overcome their physical and mental limitations and thereby attain Nibbana:
This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding.
The road away from the pain begins with meditation on the body's limitations and its repulsiveness:
And further, O bhikkhus [momks], a bhikkhu reflects on just this body hemmed by the skin and full of manifold impurity from the soles up, and from the top of the hair down, thinking thus: 'There are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of stomach, intestines, mesentery, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tars, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.
Everything will rot away in a disgustin and stinking manner:
Or again, as if he [the monk] were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures... a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons... a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons... a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons... bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a breast bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull... the bones whitened, somewhat like the colour of shells... piled up, more than a year old... decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, 'This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.'
As an aid in meditation on life´s brevity, its horrendous futility and the suffering of all creatures, a Buddhist monk could use images of decay, like a silk painting by the Japanese artist Kobayashi Eitaku, which in nine scenes presents the decay of the corpse of a courtesan.
But, what is left after this disgusting process? The skeleton. I must admit that after my youngest daughter studied forensic medicine, I do not find skeletons scary anymore. Now they can even give a rather beautiful and fascinating impression. They may even provide fascinating tales about a person's life. Teeth, worn joints, postures - every detail of a skeleton can tell you about an individual's diseases and toils, what s /he inherited of physical features and shortcomings, or what befall her/him during her/his long or short life span. How people died and where.
Skeletons are resistant, they are what is left below the surface of skin and muscles, something completely different from perishable meat and evaporating body fluids. The structure behind it all, the enclosed bones that carry the weight of our mortal lives. Within these bones reposes the marvelous human brain, behind the ribs´ lattice move the lungs and the heart, in the women's pelvic bones rest foetuses. Attached to the bones is the entire body's sophisticated communication network, with its blood vessels and nerves. A wonder of functionalism. Skeletons may seem daunting, but they are actually quite amazing. Something that may be perceived through the fascination emerging from da Vinci's drawings, or in the beautiful etchings of Vesalius's anatomy textbook.
In the world of art, skeletons do not only appear as images. All over Rome I find magnificent sculptural representations of skeletons and skulls. What is really a skeleton? It is made of lime, which is also the origin of marble; metamorphosed limestone. A polished skull is thus really not so very different from a sculpture made of Carrara marble.
Some time ago I wandered around in the Basilica di Sant´Agostino not far from Piazza Navona. As so often before, I wanted to take a have look at Caravaggio's Madonna of Loreto, presenting her divine child to two kneeling pilgrims. When I see her I think of my art professor Aron Borelius´ comment that it must have been irritating for a priest officiating the Mass to have those dirty feet right in front of his face. Though, perhaps it was Caravaggio´s intention to make the priest, as he lifted up the chalice with the blood of Christ, to also rise his eyes from the everyday reality of dirt and toil towards the Madonna´s radiant, otherworldly beauty.
I strolled along in the church and ended up in front of Pietro Bracci´s grave monument to Cardinal Giuseppe Renato Imperiali. I had not noticed it before. However, since I had begun to think about skeletons and skulls I discovered, on each side of the Cardinal´s name plate, two magnificent, winged skulls.
It is like that in this magical city - everyday a new discovery and if you are on the trail of something, it pops up all the time. Now I find skeletons and skulls everywhere. A favourite of mine is Bernini's bronze skeleton at the grave monument of Pope Alexander VII in the Vatican, completed two years before the great master's death at the age of eighty-one. There Death hides his face while he is lifting up his hourglass, himself floating in the air under a heavy draping by the pope's feet.
On my way home after my visit to Sant´Agostino I passed by San Pietro in Vincoli to have a look at Michelangelo's statue of Moses. I had not done it in years. And what do I find there? Another fantastic marble skeleton, this time on the grave monument to Cardinal Cinizio Aldobrandini. I had not noticed that one before either.
Skeletons were also present during my time in France, a few years ago. For example, perhaps the most famous of all transi - Rene de Chalon´s flayed cadaver in the church of Saint-Etienne in the small town of Bar-le-Duc, south of Verdun. I ended up there because outside the town of Verdun I had seen the macabre monument at Le Mort Homme, The Dead Man, a 300 metres high hill from where the French troops could direct their artillery fire towards the German outposts. During March and April 1916 more than 100,000 Germans and French were killed during the Germans´ unsuccessful attempts to conquer that hill. Most of the time it was raining and many of the young men died while the abdomen swelled up on them after they mad with thirst had drank water poisoned by the many corpses.
The several metres high sculpture, which was erected in 1922 in memory of the insane battle, shows how Death with one hand lifts up his shroud to reveal his emaciated body. Over the other arm he carries a rolled up banner and on the base of the monument we read Ils n'ont pas passé They did not pass. An answer to the generals´ motto and orders: On ne passe pas! They shall not pass! I have visited the battlefield of Verdun three times and each time the weather has been raw, cold and rainy, as if a curse hangs over the entire area, reinforced by the poisoned earth itself. A hundred years ago it was churned by incessant bombardment, as corpses of hundreds of thousands dead, young were grinded into the black soil. While I stood there, alone in the pouring rain and biting wind, watching the monument it occurred to me that I had seen something similar before.
When I later had dinner in Verdun, I caught a glimpse of a picture on a postcard rack standing on the reception desk. It was the sculpture I had been thinking of, made by a certain Ligier Richier and to be found in the cathedral of Bar-le-Duc, a small town some thirty kilometres south of Verdun. Even if the rain continued unabated I ran out to my rental car, taking a chance that the church had not been closed yet. When I arrived at Bar-le-Duc at half past seven the clouds had dispersed, dusk was falling but to my great pleasure I found the church door open, it would be closed in fifteen minutes.
I was alone in the darkening church and behind a grill was René de Chalon, once Prince of Orange, in natural size, with his skin torn, exposing the ribs. He kept his heart high in the right hand, while he held the other against his empty chest. He looked triumphant. But why? With that terrible appearance? While I was standing there with my hands closed around the iron bars, I was deeply moved. The sculpture was indeed macabre, but it gave a strangely soothing impression. Remembered a Bible quote, I did not know from where, "Oh death, where is thy victory? Where, oh death, is thy sting?" It became increasingly dark, shadows fell dramatically over the dead René de Chalon. I winced as a voice behind me whispered: Il est temps d'aller maintenant. It's time to go now. As if death was calling upon me, but it was the church janitor who announced that he was about to close the church.
Death was also present in Paris. On some occasions I went to down into the catacombs, where bones and skulls are densely packed along the walls. The tunnel system is more than 300 kilometres in circumference and began to be develop during Roman times when limestone was broken down there. By the end of the eighteenth century it was assumed that infections and diseases spreading all over the town found their origin in the city's many cemeteries, it was decided that most of them had to be closed down and their skeletons were brought down into the mining tunnels.
In Paris I saw an exhibition at the Musée Mailliol - C'est la vie! Vanites the Caravage à Damien Hirst, That's life! Vanitas from Caravaggio to Damien Hirst. I went there partly because I hoped to see For the Love of God, a skull covered with 8,601 diamonds, the eight thousand six hundredth and first diamond is cut in a pear-shaped form and placed in the middle of the parietal bone. Maybe this object can be perceived as yet another example of kitschy exuberance, like so much else done by Damian Hirst, though it cannot be denied that the diamond encrusted skull in all its bizarre tastelessness, its vulgar unpleasantness, is an impressive comment on our pursue of luxury, our death captivated consumer society, with its ridiculously hyped art and fashion market, which conceals a glaring emptiness, injustice, pointless waste and dire poverty. This work of art is priced at fifty million pounds and it remains uncertain if it has been sold, or not. Well, there was no diamond encrusted skull to be seen at the Musée Mailliol, other than in the form of a three-dimensional image, but the exhibition was impressive, with its large number of depictions of skulls from Roman times to the present.
Before leaving Paris, I have to mention a few more skeletons. Mainly those in Galerie d'Anatomie et de comparée Paléontologie, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology, in the Jardin des Plantes, the Biological Garden not far from the street of Square Adanson where I lived during my time in Paris. Often I took an early morning jogging session in the Jardin des Plantes or sat reading on a bench in the shade of the tall trees. Sometimes I also visited Le Galerie d'Anatomie, a run-down place that had obviously not been refurbished since its opening in 1898. It consists of two huge galleries. Downstairs it is filled with skeletons of all conceivable beings, while the second floor houses prehistoric animals - dinosaurs, mammoths and giant Irish deer. I liked the remarkable uniqueness of the place and was seized by the skeletons´ beauty. Apart from the fact that they constitute the underpinning of the flesh, its firmness, there is also something fragile, something naked and exposed about these bones, particularly the human ones. Hard to describe - though there is maybe a pathetic naïvity, a fragile childishness in their naked state, their lack a protective cover of muscles, skin and hair.
I also come to think about the final chapter in Victor Hugo´s great Paris novel called Notre Dame de Paris since its main protagonist is the cathedral itself. What grabbed me when I read the novel as a kid was the tragic end, far from the Disney version. When Esmeralda has been executed and Claude Frollo plunged to his death, the kind-hearted, but terribly deformed Quasimodo disappears after having sobbed: "Oh, all that I have loved." The book's final chapter is entitled "Quasimodo´s Wedding":
… when they came to the cellar of Mounfaucon to fetch the corpse of Olivier le Dim, who had been hanged two days earlier and to whom Charles VIII had granted the favour of burial at Saint-Laurent, in better company, they found amongst all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which was clasping the other in a strange embrace. One of the two skeletons was that of a woman and still wore a few shreds of a robe of what must have been white material, while round its neck could be seen a necklace of margosa seeds, together with a little sachet, decorated with green glass beads, which lay open and empty. These objects were of such small value that the executioner had doubtless not wanted them. The second skeleton, which had enfolded the first in a tight embrace, was that of a man. They noticed that its spinal column was curved, that its head was between the shoulder-blades and that one leg was shorter than the other. But the vertebrae of the neck showed no fracture, and it had obviously not been hanged. The man to whom it had belonged must therefore have come there and have died there. When they tried to release him from the skeleton he was embracing, he crumbled into dust.
Quasimodo´s skeleton turned into dust, maybe an image of how odd he had always been, otherwise perhaps his bones had been preserved as a curiosity, like the skeleton of another gentle and misunderstood freak - Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, whose bones are still preserved at the Royal London Hospital, but have now, after years of public display, been relegated to the basement. At the hospital it has, however, been prepared a small exhibition of some of Merrick´s personal possessions.
I write this essay in our "studio", a garage we rent here in Rome and which we arranged so the first floor became a place for painting and the other a writer's den. It has been a grey and dreary day with creeping cold and incessant rain. I made a break and went down to the railway station for a late lunch, on my way there I encountered our friends Belén and Danilo and together we went to a bar to have a chat and cup of coffee. As so often happens when I am writing a blog post random conversations and events tend to connect to my track of thoughts.
Belén and Danilo had recently been to Naples and told me they had visited the Sansevero chapel and there they had marvelled at Giuseppe Sanmartino´s Il Cristo Velato, The Veiled Christ. Virtuously carved from a single block of marble we glimpse the body of Christ under a thin, transparent veil. When Belén and Danilo enthusiastically told me about the dexterously made sculpture I remembered a visit I had made to that chapel more than forty years ago, when I was stunned not only by Sanmartino´s masterpiece but also by others of the chapel´s strange marvels, of which some even lingered in my nightmares.
The chapel's creator, Raimondo di Sangro, was one of the many odd, legendary geniuses and charlatans who during the eighteenth century popped up here and there in Italy and among European royality, men like Casanova and Cagliostro. Like them Raimondo de Sangro was fascinated not only by enlightenment and science, but also by mysticism and alchemy. Like many alchemists he was pursuing the origin of life. His dream was to be able to, like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, bring the dead to life.
To better understand Raimondo di Sangro´s strange ideas it could maybe be appropriate to, for a short time enter into the eighteenth-century´s entangled world of Freemasons. The Masonic movement was a motley network of secret, up-scaled gentlemen's clubs that were spread all across Europe. Officially, Freemasonry originated in London in 1717, when The Grand Lodge of London united four different builders´ lodges. However, the history of Freemasonry is infinitely more complicated than that. It may suffice to state that in 1710 the great architect Christopher Wren was the grand master of a Masonic lodge that allowed wealthy men, who were neither draughtsmen, nor architects, to obtain membership. The original masonic lodges could be considered as a continuation of the medieval guild system, in which master builders through secret rituals were introduced to an exclusive, inner circle of particularly skilled building experts.
Soon an entire mythology developed around these societies, including legends surrounding the construction of the Solomon´s temple in Jerusalem. When the Masonic lodges were liberated from the guild system and became secret associations in their own right the mythmaking proliferated even more. Particularly influential became the so-called Scottish Rite which supplemented older rituals with wild speculations about freemasonry´s roots among Medieval chivalric military orders, in particular the Knights Templar, or more correctly - The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.
During the 1700s, the core of the ideology of the members of most Masonic lodges became a quest for liberation from the 1600s religious intolerance, which had meant that governments´ had intervened to prevent individuals from seeking happiness, knowledge and experience on their own. Freemasonry came to be a part of the radical Enlightenment, though its strange rituals and the secrecy surrounding the meetings helped to conceal the true relationship. What Freemasonry basically was about was the establishment of a secular and enlightened way of thinking and behaving. Many lodges were exclusive, male communities, which members claimed to pursue the establishment of a more virtuous and just social system, liberated from religious dogmatism.
Protected by the secrecy of their lodges several “Masonic brothers” rejected Christian metaphysics´ most basic assumptions and formulated an entirely new approach to life and creation, based on scientific discoveries about how the nature actually worked. Speculations and philosophizing thrived within Freemasonry. “Solidarity and honesty between men” was emphasized in the statutes of several lodges, meaning that the Masons tried to communicate their feelings through a straightforward language. Nothing should be uttered for "the sake of rhetoric". Overly eloquent niceties and contrived language were loathed and it was declared that the “brethren” had to communicate their feelings in such a way that it “revealed what their souls really felt.” All reference to perfunctory, customary and unproven truths was rejected, as well as hollow insincerity, something that certainly could have been a relief for military men, lawyers and courtiers.
Raimondo di Sangro, who was born in southern Italy in 1710 to an old noble family, was one of the founders of the first Freemasonic lodge of Naples. He was in many ways a brilliant man who spoke several languages and understood many more (including Arabic and Hebrew). He was extremely well read and also a successful military man, inventor, scientist and alchemist. He invented an effective, easily transported cannon, a portable pump that could pump water to any height, a light source that provided light for several months in succession, multi-coloured fireworks, a carriage that through an ingenious paddle system could travel over land, as well as water, and a printing press that on the same sheet instantly could print several colours. However, through his science-based endeavours he sought above all life's secret. The ignition that sparked life. How could it be kept it alive? Was it possible to resurrect a dead organism, especially a human being?
Raimodo di Sangro was originally a wealthy person, later ruining himself through the construction of the Sansevero chapel. Before he spent his money on the chapel he built up an extensive library, while he corresponded with Freemasonic brethren from different parts of Europe, several of whom were influential scientists and thinkers. Almost all were wealthy. As examples of costs associated with Freemasonry lodges may be mentioned those in the Swedish towns of Gothenburg and Stockholm. Among their members they not only counted high ranking officers, lawyers and aristocrats, but also many academics, including several prominent disciples of the renown botanist Carl Linnaeus and in the seaport city of Gothenburg - a large number of East Indiamen, especially the latter two groups had extensive international contacts and were important in both academia and politics.
Freemasons in Gothenburg, the trading port on the Swedish westcoast, had in 1759, four years after the founding of their lodge, over one hundred wealthy members. Of these 25 were employees at various superior positions of the Swedish East India Company and a further 28 were naval officers, most of whom had participated in the East India Company´s profitable voyages. Soon, the two groups amounted to more than 50 persons each. The admission fee was 100 silver thalers (approximately 1,900 USD in today´s currency) to be paid in advance and on top of that was an annual fee of 16 silver thalers (560 USD). A captain in the Swedish East India Company earned 100 silver thalers a month.
During the second half of the 1700s, there were Freemasonic lodges in every European nation and many of their members corresponded frequently with one another. a correspondence that certainly was an important source of Raimodo di Sangro´s speculations about and extensive experimentation concerning the origin of life. He concentrated mainly on the heart and circulatory function. Unfortunately, we do not know much about di Sangro´s research since his relatives after his death in 1771 destroyed Raimondo´s laboratory, burned his correspondence and quite a lot of his books. Even if he wrote many books and pamphlets, which he printed on his press, he unfortunately used several pseudonyms and his authorship is thus more or less unknown and open to speculation. All these precautions were justified. The Papal States had spies everywhere and they kept their eyes and ears open, constantly reporting about Masonic opposition to the Church's unyielding dogmas.
In 1751, Pope Benedict XIV issued the Bull Providas Romanorum Pontificum, which condemned the Freemasons and through this Bull several European rulers realized the Freemasonic lodges subversive activities and they were banned in several states. Charles VII of Naples followed the trend and although he closed the lodges in 1751, he changed his mind the year after. He was probably a Freemason himself, in any case Charles VII was a quite popular and considered to be an enlightened ruler. During his rule, several important trading offices were established in Naples by Ottomans, Swedes, Dutch and French, influential and frequent contacts with these nations stimulated the growth of Freemasonry.
When Charles VII in 1759 was succeeded by one of his sons, Ferdinand, by the Napolitanos called Re Nasone, King Big Nose, the monarchy's relations with the Freemasons gradually went sour and in 1781 the king forbade them. Long before that Raimondo di Sangro had already retreated into the anonymity of his alchemical laboratory and ibegun constructing his famous Chapel Sansevero. Something that cost him so much that he sometimes had to engage in petty crime. For several years he maintained, for example, extensive illegal gambling in his palace, which led to him being jailed and forced to spend several months in a dungeon in the town of Gaeta.
While Raimondo di Sangro devoted himself to alchemy, petty crime and a secretive cult of Isis, Osiris and Horus, the Neapolitan Freemasons were reorganized into various resistance cells, which later gave rise to the revolutionary Carbonari, charcoal burners, also called Forest Masons as they had their secret meetings in the countryside surrounding Naples. Carbonari later organized the resistance against Napoleon's invasion of Italy and their organization and ideas inspired similar resistance cells in several different locations in Europe. During the 1820s and 1830s they organised uprising in Naples, Milan, Paris, Vienna and Berlin, and they had a great importance for the leaders of the unification of Italy, with Garibaldi and Mazzini as prominent members.
Exactly, what were Raimondo di Sangro´s immortality experiments? Aside from speculation and macabre legends not much is known about them, though they have left some traces in the literature and especially in the Sansevero chapel. To trace some of the ideas we may assume that di Sangro in his library kept the writings of an important source of inspiration to modern science - Andrea Cisalpino (1519-1603). Cisalpino was like di Sangro interested in the origin of life. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Pisa; botanist, philosopher and scientist. To trace the order of creation and laws of nature he initiated the first plant systematisation since Antiquity and his theories inspired Carl Linnaeus. Cisalpino thoughts on blood circulation were also an important inspiration for the Englishman William Harvey (1578-1657), who finally discovered how it really worked.
William Harvey (1578 - 1657) enrolled in 1600 at the University of Padua, which was the contemporary European centre for anatomical research. During January-February every year famous scientists performed public autopsies in the city's large autopsy theatre. That they were carried out during these oarticular months depended on the fact that they were the coldest ones in Italy and the corpses did not rot so quickly.
Autopsies began at eight in the morning and lasted for three hours. The audience was elated and often drunk, it was carnival time and autopsies were by many considered as a macabre entertainment. An orchestra played throughout the event, since it was assumed that the mucis would have a calming effect on the audience. That anatomy studies attracted so much attention to the University of Parma were partly due to the fact that Vesalius had worked as an "anatomist" at that university and his lavishly illustrated anatomy book was used by doctors throughout Europe. Fifty years after the death of Vesalius his insights still attracted large numbers of “anatomists” to Padua, where the heritage of careful autopsies was honoured by a large team of professionals who developed and documented increasingly sophisticated methods.
William Harvey was schooled in Galen´s (129-199 AD) classical anatomy and as a devout Christian he shared the Roman doctor´s belief that the mystery of life and the divine presence in a human were to be found in the heart. According to Galen's theories the "vital spirit" was present both in the air, as pneumat and in the liver, in the form of pneuma. Blood was created in the liver out of chyle, a milky fluid formed in the small intestine, when pneuma charged it with the body's inherent vitality, the peneuma. In the heart the blood mixed with nature's life force, penumat, which was pumped in from the lungs. The heart thus constituted the nexus between the divine and human spheres.
For more than a thousand years the Christian Church had taught that a person's entire life was enshrined in the heart, the body's meeting place with God's spirit. After our death we end up in the Judgement House where we have to open our hearts to God, who will read them all. In the Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua, we find a fresco by Giotto depicting how Charity lifts her heart towards God so he may read what is recorded within it. It is the same gesture as the one of René de Chalon´s rotting carcass in the Church of Bar-le-Duc. Neither René de Chalon, nor Charity are ashamed of displaying their hearts to God.
It was during anatomy lessons, through reading of the books by Andrea Cisalpino and the lectures he attended in Padua that William Harvey first sensed how blood circulation functioned. After his return to England he began to carry out dissections by himself and even vivisections on live animals. Harvey was finally able to map the entire blood circulation process and was furthermore capable proving its function through simple demonstrations when he blocked and opened veins with ligatures and finger pressure.
And now we come back to the Freemasons. During the seventeenth century Holland had become a haven for free thinkers. There were French Protestants, Huguenots, fleeing from Catholic fundamentalists, Englishmen on the run from Protestant fundamentalists and Jews fleeing from both Catholics and Protestants. From England and France came the Freemasons and they grew strong in the tolerant Netherlands. In Leiden we find the very influential Herman Boerhaave. He was hardly a Freemason, but a pious Christian. However, Boerhaave was also a pragmatist who had abandoned his theological studies to examine how disease processes unfold, how nature behaves if influenced by various diseases. Extremely cautiously he studied healing processes of various types of lesions, as well as he analysed changes in faeces and urine, applying the latest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Intellectuals from all over Europe soon flocked to be taught by Boerhaave, among many others - Carl Linnaeus.
To Boerhaave came the young French physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709 - 1751), of almost the same age as Raimondo di Sangro and a Freemason as well. After his return from Holland La Mettrie began to apply Boerhaave´s teaching in his medical practice and when he was struck by a violent attack of fever and melancholy, La Mettrie understood that his psychological state could be traced to bodily ailments, and thus came to the conclusion that the brain and the nervous system were physical organs, which produced thoughts and feelings, just like other organs produced fluids and secretions.
Notions that he developed further in his controversial book L'Homme Machine, Man a Machine. According to La Mettrie Homo Sapiens is just another an animal species. Just like animals humans learn by imitation. We are made up of the same basic elements as the animals, the only difference is that these elements are organized in a different manner. It just happened that in humans random combinations of various traits have made it possible for us to think and act in a particular way. God does not exist, all existence is governed by the basic laws of universe and due to our superior brain humans we will soon be able to decipher these laws. The only philosophy worthy of any attention is an unbiased exploration of the nature that surrounds us and of which we are an integrated part.
Perhaps it was only natural for a committed Freemason and scientist like Raimondo di Sangro to occupy himself with the issue of reanimating dead organisms. Freemasonry did not only involve discussions about science and freedom of thought - in order to be admitted to the different degrees within the secretive lodges, of which the degrees of apprentice, fellow craftsman and Master Mason are present in every each lodge, though some of the “rites” may have up to ninety additional degrees. In order to pass from one degree to another it was necessary to undergo complicated initiation rites. Entrance rituals of the third degree – the Master level - revolved around the legend of Hiram Abiff, who was assumed to have been a master builder at the temple of Solomon and murdered since he refused to reveal the secrets of his guild. The initiation ritual consists of a magical staging of Hiram Abiff´s death and resurrection, resulting in the initiate´s acceptance into the realm of Master Masons.
In his alchemical laboratory Raimondo di Sangro, just like the hero of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus, busied himself with electrical and chemical experiments aimed at bringing dead organisms to new life. He was well aware of the speculations about animal magnetism and static electricity and before men as Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin and Hans Christian Ørsted made their revolutionary discoveries about electricity, di Sangro had approached similar theories and solutions.
Raimondo di Sangro´s speculations were to a high degree influenced by a branch of Italian alchemy which was inspired by the Hermetism popularized by Marsilio Ficino who in the fifteenth century got access to a collection of manuscripts dealing with ideas revolving around a certain Hermes Trismegistos. These writings had been brought to Florence by Greek-speaking refugees from Constantinople, which was threatened by the onslaught of the Turks and finally fell into their hands in 1453. The Hermetic scriptures were based on ideas first written down in Egypt in the first century AD and contained a mixture of Neoplatonism and domestic Egyptian traditions about Thoth, god of wisdom. Hermes Trismegistus was perceived as a person and his teachings were assumed to be much older than those of Moses, Plato and Christ.
Much of the Hermetism was based on magical thinking, i.e. that you could through practical actions impact the world by applying the laws by which it is governed it. Someone who eagerly studied the Hermetic scriptures was Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727), deservedly and boundlessly admired by Raimondo di Sangro´s contemporaries.
Naples was the breeding ground for a revival of ancient Egyptian speculations about Isis´ awakening from the death of her husband, the fertility god Osiris. According to a popular tradition had Naples in Roman times, in connection with Italy´s close trading contacts with their homeland, been hosting a large group of Egyptians and the notorious Giuseppe Balsamo (1743-1795), born in Palermo and generally called Cagliostro, spread the doctrine of Egyptian wisdom through Freemasonic lodges all over Europe . Traces of such notions are apparent in Mozart's The Magic Flute in which, among other things, we may enjoy Sarastro´s magnificent aria O Isis und Osiris. Even before Cagliostro's influence Raimondo di Sangro had introduced Egyptian traits in Naple´s Freemasonry lodge, through his "ancient" Egyptian rite Memphis et Mizraïm.
Central to the myth of Isis and Osiris, which was told by the Greek-Roman author Plutarch (46-120 e.Kr), was how Osiris was killed by his brother Set and cut into thirteen pieces, which Set then spread all over Egypt. Osiris's wife Isis and his sister Nephthys managed to collect all the body parts, while Anubis and Thoth pieced them together and embalmed the body of Osiris. Isis managed to revive her husband, get pregnant with him and eventually gave birth to Horus who became ruler of Egypt, while Osiris became lord of the Underworld and sustainer of all life on earth.
Among other things, inspired by the myth about Osiris resurrection, Raimondo di Sangro experimented with dead matter and tried to identify life-giving forces. Like Harvey and La Mettrie di Sangro adopted the belief that the body was designed as a machine and that its life giving force was circulated around the body through the blood vessels. To understand how the system worked di Sangro hired Giuseppe Salerno, an "anatomist" from Palermo, to make two extremely detailed models of the cardiovascular system. A female and a male skeleton were covered with a meticulous and perfectly executed network of blood vessels and capillaries. A rumour spread that Raimondo, like in the novel Frankenstein, in different ways gathered body parts from deceased people. Like Isis and Thoth, he then stitched them together and tried to revive them through various chemical and electrical processes. It was also rumoured that the blood vessels of the two "human machines" he kept in his basement laboratory had been fabricated by the doctor Salerno by "metallizing" real veins and capillaries. However, as late as in 2008, a research team from the University College of London (UCL) found that the blood vessels of di Sangro´s “machines” were made of copper wire covered with coloured wax. The two macabre models are preserved in glass cases in a chamber below the Sansevero chapel in Naples and their grotesque appearance gave me several nightmares after I had seen them many years ago.
It is in the remarkable baroque chapel above the macabre “machines” that Giuseppe Sanmartino´s Veiled Christ can be admired. The veil through which one may clearly discern almost every detail of Christ´s body is so virtuously executed that people for a long time thought it was a real piece of cloth that Raimondo di Sangro had managed to “marmorize” through various chemical processes, as he in the basement had "metallized" real blood vessels. It has however been proven that Sanmartino chiselled the sculpture from a single block of marble.
While thinking about the Veiled Christ, I come back to the beginning of my essay - "the skull beneath the skin", the eternally indestructible hidden beneath perishable skin and flesh, like the dead Jesus under the thin veil that hides him, but by revealing most of his body nevertheless suggests his presence. Like a veil hiding the truth about the secret of life. The resurrected Jesus will cast aside the shroud, just like science according to many Freemasons, would finally reveal the truth about everything.
Nevertheless, despite all his efforts Raimondo di Sangro was unable to solve the riddle about life´s origin and sustainability, though he managed to accomplish remarkable things - lasting works of art. To conclude this meandering journey through anatomy and mysticism, I write down some words I came across when we last year visited the Greek island of Kos, one of the destinations for desperate refugees fleeing from the Syrian hell. There I read an inscription near the tree under which the physician Hippocrates is said to have taught his students:
Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult.
Yet one more minor coincidence. When I came home today, my gaze fell upon a house plant Rose has placed by our front door. It is called Viper's Bowstring Hemp, or Mother-in-Law's Tongue, while its bionomial classification is Sansevieria trifasciata. Trifasciata means extended, about the genus Sansevieria I read that the name originally was coined by the Napolitano botanist Vincenzo Petagna as a tribute to his benefactor Pietro Antonio Sanseverino, Count of Chiaromonte, but that the name for "unknown reasons" was changed by Linnaeus´ disciple Carl Peter Thunberg and instead of alluding to Pietro Antonio Sanseverino the nameof the plant now pays homage to Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo.
I did not know why Thunberg wanted to pay tribute to Raimondo di Sangro, but when I looked up the Swedish botanist I found some coincidences with my essay. Thunberg was a Freemason and when he was in Holland he became acquainted with the Masonic brother Nicolaus Laurentius Burman, who had studied with Linnaeus in Uppsala. Thunberg was by Nicolaus Burman persuaded to become a medical doctor in the service of the Dutch East India Company, thus Thunberg was enabled to meticulously explore the flora of South Africa, Ceylon and especially Japan. Nicholas Burman's father, Johan Burman, who Thunberg also got to know, was one of Herman Boerhaave´s most respected disciples. As we have seen Boerhaave was the inspiration for the Freemason La Mettrie, whose books probably brought Raimondo di Sangro to his studies of the bloodstream and its connection with the origin of life. Maybe Thunberg's "unknown reason" to baptize the Mother-in-Law's Tongue to Sansevieria may be found somewhere in the mazes of Freemasonry?
However, the truth might be simpler than that. In an extensive article an Italian historian describes how Vincenzo Petagna in Naples had found the strange plant in the garden of Pietro Antonio Sanseverino, the count had received it from Ethiopia. In 1787, Petagna wrote "since I did not trust my ability to determine the plant, I sent a description and a piece of it to the brilliant Tunberg [sic] in Sweden and it was flattering for me when the Swedish botanist allowed me to identify and name a new species.". However, in his Flora Capensis, which Thunberg published in 1818, he had made a slight modification of the plant's Latin name, referring its name to the more famous Raimondo di Sangro, instead of to Pietro Antonio Sanseverino, at the same time Thunberg made himself appear as the discoverer of the strange plant. Vincenzo Petagna had then been dead for eight years.
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