A love of decapitation

November 22nd, 2010 · 1:34 pm  →  the blog

Among those present at Haydn’s funeral in June, 1809 was a contingent of French officers who had been granted leave to attend, including a young commissary named Henri Marie Beyle. Beyle loved Haydn’s music and would shortly publish a biography of the composer (which, it turned out, was largely plagiarized); he also had an abiding interest in phrenology, having been one of Gall’s patients back in Paris.

Beyle’s connection to Haydn might have resonated in other ways, had he been aware of what had lately happened to the composer’s corpse. Beyle, after all, was fascinated by the story of Marguerite de Navarre and her lover Boniface de la Mole: Boniface had been guillotined for high treason during the height of the French terror, and his head had been impaled on a spike as a warning to other dissidents. Marguerite had put herself at some risk by taking down the head and then, according to legend, had had it embalmed and placed in an ornate jeweled case that she would show off to friends. In 1830, when Beyle was writing his masterpiece under the pseudonym “Stendhal,” he would be reminded of the story of Marguerite and Boniface and would incorporate a version of it into the final scene of the book that was to become The Red and the Black. In that novel, after Julien Sorel’s death, his lover Mathilde (whose family name, de la Mole, was itself an homage to Boniface) goes alone to his crypt the night before his burial and decapitates his corpse, spending a night alone with the head before interring it in a separate, private ceremony.

Paying his respects to Haydn that day, Beyle scarcely could have imagined that life was busy imitating art some twenty years in advance and that, while he and the other mourners had gathered to honor the composer, Haydn’s decapitated, stolen head was soaking in limewater at a nearby hospital.

On Some Mummies…

November 8th, 2010 · 10:43 am  →  the blog

Among the other wonders and pleasures that early nineteenth century Vienna displayed was Angelo Soliman, or at least, what was left of him. Born in Nigeria around 1721, Soliman had been enslaved as a young child and bought by the Austrian governor of Sicily, Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz. In the service of Lobkowitz, Soliman distinguished himself as a companion and a soldier, and his fame and stature grew as he accompanied the governor on a number of military expeditions. After Lobkowitz’s death, Soliman went into the service of Prince Wenzel von Lichtenstein in Vienna. There he became a court favorite—he was fluent in six languages and was widely admired for his erudition and wit. He became a Mason in the same lodge as Haydn and Mozart.

Despite this prestige, when he died of natural causes in 1796, the Hapsburg emperor, Franz II, did not see fit to accord him the same rite of burial that any other Mason would have been granted. After Soliman’s death the emperor had him skinned, and his skin was fitted onto a wooden frame and put on display in Franz II’s “Imperial and Royal Physical Astronomical Art and Nature and Animal Cabinet.” Wonder cabinets had been around for over a century, so when Franz II opened his in 1797, he wanted something special. In life Soliman had dressed in the latest fashions and proved himself equal to the greatest minds of Europe; in death he was decked in a loincloth and headdress made of ostrich feathers, perched alongside the birds of paradise. He was the highlight of the cabinet.

“All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless,” Sarah Bowditch wrote in her taxidermy manual in 1820; “the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections. We have only some parts of man, either dried or preserved in spirits of wine, sufficiently entire to be recognized.”

Either she was unaware of Soliman or judged him to be one of those “mis-shapen hideous objects,” because the lone exception that Bowditch mentions is the work of Frederick Ruytsch, who was well known for his exotic and ground-breaking preparations—“The anatomical collection of the Museum of Natural History in Paris possesses a head…by the celebrated Ruitch [sic], a Dutch physician. It still preserves all the vivacity of its colours. The cold so far affects the liquor in which it is contained, as to hide it completely, but at the return of spring the liquor becomes clear, and we perfectly distinguish the object.”  Ruytsch was in fact so famous that in 1824 the poet Giacomo Leopardi composed a operetta about him, entitled “Dialogue Between Frederick Ruytsch and His Mummies,” in which Ruytsch’s specimens come to life for a single night to explain the mysteries of death:

Alone in the world, eternal, toward whom does move
Every created thing,
In you, Death, finds rest
Our naked nature;
From ancient suffering.  Profound
Night in our confused mind
Obscures our grave thought;
Towards hope, desire, the shriveled spirit
Feels its strength wane;
Thus from affliction and from fear is freed
And the empty slow years
Unbored whiles away.
We lived; and as the confused memory
Of a frightening ghost
And of a sweating dream
Wanders in the souls of infants,
So in us remembrance lingers
Of our lives: but far from fear
Is our remembering.  What were we?
What was the bitter point called life?
Stupendous mystery is today
Life to our minds, and such
As to the minds of the living
Unknown death appears.  As when living
From it death fled, now flees
From vital flame
Our naked nature
Not joyous but secure;
For to be happy
Is denied to mortals and denied the dead by Fate.

Ruytsch’s mummies, Bowditch notes, are an exception, “and since the bony part of our body is the only one which we are able to preserve entire and in its natural position,” Bowditch recommends that the best way to preserve a human is by cleaning and displaying the skull.