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.