Mark Dery: My Roman Holiday

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."


When the American Academy in Rome appointed me a scholar in residence for two weeks this summer, an evil gleam kindled in my eye. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: worship Italian cooking in its birthplace like some foodie penitent, a gastro-fundamentalist version of those frighteningly devout pilgrims who earn plenary indulgences by ascending, on their knees, the steep marble stairs of the Piazza di Porta San Giovanni in Rome. (Pontius Pilate's staircase, allegedly, lugged all the way to from the Holy Land to the Holy City in the year 326. A wood casing protects the venerated steps; strategically cut openings reveal what are purported to be Christ's bloodstains. Believer beware...)

That was my first, albeit covert, order of business.

My Official Reason for Being in Italy was to research my book-in-progress, The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation of the paradox of awful beauty---beheld things whose retinal seductions are irresistible yet whose content is morally horrific, politically incorrect, or at the very least, viscerally repulsive. (About which, more shortly, in my next post.)

The second item on my hidden agenda was to convince the editors of Boing Boing to let me blog my Grand Tour, which I hoped would be of interest to like-minded Mutants. With the editors' blessing, I would chronicle my encounters with Wonderful Things&trade in a style that, in my dreams, crossed the scholarly fastidiousness of Charles Willson Peale with the deadpan urbanity Rod Serling, whose brand of suave always hit that sweet spot between Mad Men and the mortician's prep table.

I'm not being glib, here. In his famous natural-history museum, Peale was one of the first to embrace the logic of the Linnean taxonomy, a paradigm-shift away from the jumbled cabinets of curiosity, or "wonder closets," of the 17th century, whose intent was not to rationalize and secularize/de-sacralize the world, but to inspire wonder and horror at wild nature and exotic cultures in a time when fact and fable were conjoined twins. Boing Boing's insistence that it is a "directory" implies a certain Enlightenment epistemology, an ordering impulse, the same desire to Explain the Mystery of It All that flickers through the pop sociology and scientific edutainment of TED videos, WIRED articles, and Gladwell lectures. At the same time, Boing Boing is all about "wonderful" things---tagged by category, to be sure, yet experienced by the reader as a free-associated stream of images and ideas and events. The site is a wunderkammer of the Web, where a post about Jack Kirby's comic-book retellings of readers' dreams might follow an item about a summer camp for atheist kids or a link to a photo that does (or does not) bear an uncanny resemblance to the famous image of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. The implicit logic, here, is less that of the diligently taxonomized archive than that of the madcap cabinet of curiosities, where the prehistoric insect embedded in a piece of amber sits next to the bona fide unicorn's horn, the anencephalic fetus in a vitrine full of brandy keeps company with the mummified mermaid on the shelf beside it.

Later today, and over the next two weeks, I hope you'll join me on a guided tour of some of Italy's most spectacular manifestations of the Pathological Sublime (with occasional corner-of-the-mouth asides inspired by more conventional tourist destinations, as well). In Rome, we'll prowl the Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria in Rome, and of course the Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, and we'll contemplate the sanctified eroticism of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, too. In Florence, we'll succumb to the uncanny seductions of the 18th-century wax medical models, especially the obstetric mannequins known as "Anatomical Venuses," in the stunning museum La Specola. In the same city, we'll visit the by-invitation-only museums at the Careggi hospital, where we'll marvel at the bizarre, Dr. Phibes-ian anatomical preparations of Girolamo Segato (1792-1836), whose exact nature remains a mystery to this day, and at the breathtakingly hyperrealistic wax models of pathological conditions, and at the unforgettable teratological specimens preserved in formalin. In Ozzano Emilia, outside Bologna, we'll wander the Museum of Veterinary Pathology and Teratology, also by invitation only, a surrealist bestiary of congenital mash-ups, most of them stillborn; back in Bologna, we'll pay homage to the exquisite medical waxes of the incomparable Ercole Lelli, in the Palazzo Poggi, nor will we neglect the dimly lit, unloved Museum of Zoology of the University of Bologna, an unintentional monument to the Taxidermic Grotesque, its stuffed animals in their final, melancholy stages of decay.

I'm thrilled by the prospect of submitting these sights, and my insights, for your sharp-witted consideration. In my experience as a reader and a writer, the bb multitudes are smarter by an order of magnitude than nearly any avant-pop, mass/cult audience I've encountered. As important, you've earned your weirdness stripes through frequent exposure to the unkillable GOATSE meme. Over breakfast.

As I go, I'll be test-driving arguments for my book-in-progress; any Mutant whose comments sharpen my analysis or inspire previously unconsidered angles of intellectual attack will of course be cited in my acknowledgements.

Is all of this a bit much for a Monday morning? If so, my apologies. But I never promised you a unicorn chaser.

Image: "The Artist in His Museum," Charles Willson Peale, self-portrait, 1822. Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art, the George W. Elkins Collection. Used under the Fair Use provision.


  1. For BB’s next guest blogger, could they select someone who doesn’t share the modern obsession with sharing his thoughts on food and drink? It’s like the world has been taken over by food critics.

  2. Not all Wunderkammern were random jumbles of stuff: many were, in your words, “dilligently taxonomized.” Sure, there were often fantastic, fake, etc., objects cheek-by-jowl with the real, but more often than not objects were grouped together to facilitate viewing and discussion: medals with medals, shells with shells, etc. BoingBoing is much more random than your average Wunderkammer.

    The whole pre-post Enlightenment “paradigm shift” is a little too Foucault, BTW. I’m sure you know that the process was much messier and less defined than a two-centuries-later construction like “paradigm shift” would allow. There’s been a paradigm shift away from the model of the paradigm shift, if you will…. :)

    Oh, and I’m so so sorry I was a major dick when you posted here last in re: Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. Your responses gave me a whole lot to think about: about my own work, about blogging, etc. I’m glad to see you back on BoingBoing.

  3. Oooh, now this is a guest blogger I can really gel with.

    Can’t wait to read about your lovely grotesquerie!

  4. I’ve always envied those that can get paid to take their vacations!

    Given that I’m probably never going to really travel again, I look forward to this almost as much as I would that QuicktimeVR point & click world tour that’s long overdue!

    – GimpWii

  5. By ALL means (and I mean it) go visit the chapel of “prince” Raimondo di Sangro in Napoli too! Everyone knows it through its two pre-plastination models of circulatory systems exquisitely built over actual skeletons (held in closets, of course!), but the place also holds many even more wonderful secrets. Just one of them: transparent veils made of marble over marble statues, leading di Sangro to one of his many trials for witchcraft…

  6. Also, a minor point. (If I read this correctly) Linneaus certainly had no intention of “de-sacralizing” nature when he created his system of organization. He did it expressly to glorify and exalt the complexity of God’s Creation. It wasn’t until biologists (Darwin and others) used his system of organization to come up with an alternative (and secular) hypothesis that it was seen in this light.

    I do believe that science historians properly classify this as a paradigm shift (or creation). At least in the classic understanding of “paradigms” and how they shift.

  7. Excellent timing! I’ve never been to Rome, but I’m moving there in a week to go to school. I’ll be following your posts closely. Safe travels!

  8. Oh, to be able to follow you in the Florentine part of your trip would be such an amazing dream…
    Being a Florentine myself, I’ve never been able to get into the Careggi museum, so I will follow your posts.

    …and should you need company in Firenze, for a dinner or whatever… just make a sign ;)

  9. I just went to the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna for the first time a few weeks ago. You’re going to LOVE it.

  10. Dery! felicidades–i was just running around Italy three weeks ago; I look forward to your riffs off of what you dig up! ciao!


  11. although I’ve always enjoyed food, it wasn’t until I went to Italy that I really learned to eat.

  12. Big Bill Nericcio, my post-colonial homeboy (whatever means from San Diego, the low-riding Derrida of border culture! Thanks for the props.
    @9: Many thanks for the suggestion, which I’ll tuck in my mental file for future use, since my posts about my Grand Tour are, er, posthumous. In other words, I’m back from Italy, recollecting in tranquility for your delectation.
    @10: I appreciate your nuancing of this point. In fact, my point parallels yours in the sense that I was suggesting that Linnean taxonomy opened the door to the de-sacralization (Eliade’s term, not mine) of Western epistemology, a cultural plate-tectonic shift very much associated, in the popular mind, with Darwin. You’re right to point out Linneas’s motivations; my point had more to do with the cultural developments that sprang from his innovation than it did the impulses behind that innovation. Do I make sense?
    @4: Regarding the alleged dickheadedness, I gave as good as I got, I thought. In any event, abjection sustained; go, and sin no more. As for the organizational paradigm that structured most wunderkammer, I’m afraid I can’t agree. My readings have led me to believe that most curiosity cabinets were natural-history mash-ups, with the 16th and 17th century equivalent of the Fijee mermaid sitting cheek-by-jowl freaks of nature and archaeological artifacts and gemstones and the like—Pliny, as remixed by DJ Girltalk. I’d be curious to know what your sources are.

  13. Why, oh why, doesn’t the bb comment system enable us to edit our comments?
    “Big Bill Nericcio, my post-colonial homeboy (whatever means from San Diego, the low-riding Derrida of border culture! Thanks for the props.”
    Big Bill Nericcio, my post-colonial homeboy (whatever THAT means) from San Diego, the low-riding Derrida of border culture! Thanks for the props.
    “cheek-by-jowl freaks of nature”
    cheek-by-jowl WITH freaks of nature


  14. If you get your backside to Bologna, try not to get hit by a bus as you stare up at the two wacky leaning towers!!!! I almost pulled a Roland Barthes whilst craning my neck for a better view! Bill Nericcio en califas!

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