Archive for November, 2021

Lago Lucrino

November 30, 2021

Lago Lucrino. A liquid slash that, according to Strabo, was originally separated from the Tyrrhenian Sea by Herakles. Later reduced to the size of a pond as Monte Nuovo emerged over eight terrifying days in 1538. That eruption geologically overwrote the ancient village of Tripergole and the ruins of some palatial Roman estates such as Cicero’s Academia (Greek philosophy fanboy that he was), where he wrote his Academica, where Octavian broke the bad news about his rapprochement with Marcus Antonius, where the emperor Hadrian was later (initially) buried, &c.*

Nero finally disposed of his mom, Agrippina the Younger, in a neighboring villa on the shore of Lucrino after a botched assassination attempt on the lake itself. According to Tacitus, it was a total shit show involving a collapsible boat – built with a lead roof that was supposed to crush Agrippina to death. But when it fell, she dropped to the deck and was saved by a couch that propped the roof up. Nero freaked out and tried to have the boat scuttled, but Agrippina managed to escape and swim to shore, where a crowd of onlookers cheered her in. As Cassius Dio tells it, she, undoubtedly displeased with her son, exhorted the killer who finished the job to, “Smite my womb!”

Lucrino is also famously associated with a story by Pliny (the Younger, plagiarizing his uncle, the Elder) about a dolphin and a schoolboy. Précis: They became friends on the shore of the lake. The dolphin let the boy ride on its back up & down the coast. And shortly after the boy fell ill and died, the dolphin starved itself to death. The end.

*Monte Nuovo’s emergence also sealed off the canal that Agrippa had had built in 37 BCE between Lago Lucrino and, farther inland, Lago d’Averno, so as to secretly harbor a fleet for combatting Pompey’s whelp, who was prowling the coast. There is a narrow ditch that does still run from Averno, the classical entrance to hell, seaward toward Lucrino. It is inhabited by eels. Learning this, Nicky Twilley of Gastropod asked me if I had tried to catch and barbecue any. I told her that, for all I knew, the ditch water was Lethe and the eels were souls being returned to the world as per Book VI of the Aeneid. That I’d hate to make unagi from a second chance. 

Divine Alpha

November 29, 2021

I am giving thought to how I might recreate the Oracle of Delphi by lancing a pocket of ethylene, venting it into an enclosure, inhaling small quantities, and putting questions to the God. 

A sketch of the plan:

  1. Find evidence of an untapped hydrocarbon gas pocket.
  2. Fracture it open into a subterranean cavity.
  3. Allow the cavity to charge w/ gas.
  4. Install a high chair.
  5. Sit in the chair, head near the ceiling, and make respiratory contact with the God.

Permutation 1: Ask God for alpha on the performance of hydrocarbons in commodity markets. Use winnings to fund anti-fracking/anti-capitalist activities.

Permutation 2: Consult with God on the direction humankind should take in terms of social reorganization away from market capitalism. 

The Solar Bull

November 28, 2021

As an addendum to my PhD field work, I want to squat a Mojave ghost town and finally realize my solar bull project. Years ago, I combed through listings on Alibaba and Craigslist for reasonably priced used (previously ridden?) mechanical bulls. Having acquired one, I meant to retrofit it for solar power and coin operation, and install it in an abandoned building somewhere in the desert beside a discrete, hand-lettered wooden sign reading, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I’ll forgo calling any attention to it. Just leave it out there for someone – at some point – to discover and, for the price of two bits, test their mettle against the cattle of Helios.

Fungus Among Us

November 27, 2021
  1. Inasmuch as fungal mycelia and neuronal masses/networks share some eerie commonalities, I wonder if, in evolutionary history, brains didn’t start off like lichens: symbiotes of a fungus and some other lifeform(s). That is, a brain, might =/recapitulate a mycorrhizal network by other means. Evolved to inhabit a motile form factor that enabled the network to seek out food rather than having to wait for food to pass through it.
  2. How might a human and a fungus enter into an agreement to do precious metals extraction? That is, could a fungal network be persuaded/incentivized to “trade” for gold with plants that have roots deep enough to penetrate ore veins and either hyperaccumulate the metals into their own fruiting bodies for harvest above ground, or else utilize plants connected to their network(s) as hyperaccumulative storehouses that might be periodically felled and harvested?

Dharma Bum-rush

November 26, 2021

An odd detail from Plutarch: Alexander arrested ten philosophers who fomented revolt against him in India (basically, a gymnosophist RAND Corporation). He interrogated each with a single question. The eldest was charged with adjudicating the quality of the others’ answers. They’d be executed in order of worst to best. All of them escape death through a final distel hitch of logic by the judge. The odd part of the tale is that several of Alexander’s questions were clearly pulled from the Yaksha Prashna

It’s as if, in this story, Alexander took on the mantle of Dharma interrogating Yudhishtira. Except that he was also the king. As if he were acting out both roles of a key scene from the Indian epic, as chamber play – as psychodrama. Unbeknownst to Plutarch. Presumably.


November 26, 2021

When Raimondo di Sangro, the Neapolitan Dr. Faustus, married his cousin, Carlotta Gaetani dell’Aquila d’Aragona, Giambattista Vico wrote a sonnet to commemorate the occasion, which included lines like:

My pen is slipping from my palsied grasp;
The door of my thought’s treasury is closed…

Not exactly the sort of card I’d want to receive, but, a.) what Vico gifts you don’t exchange, and b.) given how my marriage actually turned out…

Always Somewhere Else

November 26, 2021

Down the Saint Anthony Ramps—a switchblading roadlet that drops you hundreds of vertical feet in a matter of minutes, shielded from view below by a dirty white waterfall of architecture spilling down a cliffside dihedral of soft yellow stone into the sea—past the best pizza in Naples, and therefore the world, Da Pasqualino (the one at 78, Piazza Sannazaro; not the other one), across the tracks of Stazione di Napoli Mergellina into Piedigrotta, below the so-called Tomb of Virgil, lies the so-called tomb of Giacomo Leopardi.

There is no doubt that Leopardi—catslapped by contemporaries on occasion for his cosmic pessimism: “There is no God because I am a hunchback, I am a hunchback because there is no God…”, but inarguably the greatest Italian poet since Cecco Angiolieri (I jest. Since Tasso, let’s say)*—died in Naples on the 14th of June, 1837. Whether he did so from cholera, which was in season, “heart dropsy”, or an overabundance of Confetti di Sulmona (sugared almonds with a touch of cinnamon inside—after Publius Ovidius Naso, the second most famous export of Sulmona, and the more frequently consumed—of which the deceased is reported to have eaten nearly three pounds the morning he died) is unclear.

Also unclear: whose bones were disinterred from San Vitale before the Fascists leveled it in 1939. By that time, Leopardi’s original tomb inside the church had been declared a national monument. But not inviolate. Prior to their relocation to Parco Vergiliano, the remains were examined: a pair of outsized femurs, no spine or ribcage, no skull, and one shoe. Given the epidemic protocols in place at the time of Leopardi’s death, it’s likely his corpse was dumped at the Fontanelle charnel house**, or the one in Poggioreale, whatever special consideration his buddy Antonio Ranieri later claimed to have arranged by bribing the doctor and priests.

But who knows for sure? Naples is a place of magical indeterminacy. Wave functions don’t collapse out of superposition there, not fully. Not ever. Maybe that’s why Leopardi grew to loathe the city. It’s why I love it.

*I could offer multiple proofs, but one will suffice. The concluding lines of “L’infinito”:

…Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e ‘l naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

**By means of stone stairs, a prosthetic elevator, and a rat-king of thoroughfares more like a topology problem set than city streets, one descends into Sanità and Materdei for a walk among the tombs: the Paleochristian catacombs and the immense hypogean charnel house of Fontanelle, where the bones of more than 140,000 indigents and plague victims are arranged architecturally, as with a giant arch composed mainly of femurs framing a life-sized Christ.

The last time I was there, I re-emerged from the cave in the early afternoon feeling peckish and asked the watchman where to eat. He pointed across the street at an open door, where a no-nonsense woman in her shirtsleeves named Filumena fed me pasta pomodoro, fresh bread, and Peroni in her kitchen for pennies, as neighbors popped by occasionally to chat or to watch a few minutes of a soap on the TV, and a pair of local auto mechanics played a blitzkrieg hand of scopa while polishing off their lunch. Pasolini grasped something vital about Naples, I think, when he decided to set his Decameron there — filling its crumbling, grassed-in voids and constricted alleys, its subterranean passageways and crypts, and other fragments of ancient (or merely antique) ruin with filthy, leering, snarling, sweating, swearing, guffawing, shouting, gesticulating, violent, raunchy, ineradicable LIFE.

The Experimentalist

November 18, 2021

The Cappella Sansevero de’ Sangri – opposite the palazzo where Carlo Gesualdo committed (a few of) his terrible crimes* – contains five of the most remarkable statues in Italy. Three are wrought, impossibly, from marble; no one really knows what the two in the basement are made of. These and other astonishments were produced during the chapel’s 1749-1771 restoration under the extremely specific direction of its namesake, Raimondo di Sangro, seventh Prince of Sansevero: the Neapolitan Dr. Faustus.

A product of the Jesuit’s Collegium Romanum (and its Kircherian museum, natch), at age 16 Raimondo cut ahead of his pappy in the line of princely succession* and went on to become an accomplished soldier and military theorist, inventor and engineer, alchemist, publisher, translator, and first Grand Master of Neapolitan Masonry (for which he was excommunicated but later restored to the faith by another insatiable polymath, Benedict XIV)—i.e., a maximalist. He built underground laboratories for experimental chemistry, hydrostatics and mechanics, multi-color typesetting, pyrotechnics, &c., and supposedly rode about the city in an amphibious carriage with paddle wheels and cork horses. Unfortunately, di Sangro destroyed his workshops, notes, and prototypes before he died, so we don’t have much solid evidence with which to firm up the fog of legend surrounding the man. What we do have is the Cappella Sansevero, the family chapel which, for the last twenty-two years of his life, Raimondo devoted his considerable talents, energies, and resources to transforming into something truly, ravishingly, weird. That much, at least, is set in stone.

Although the Cappella Sansevero was probably not, as rumor would eventually have it, built on an ancient site of Isis worship, its restoration did coincide with the unearthing of a nearly intact temple of Isis at Pompeii – one of the first structures recovered at the behest of di Sangro’s longtime friend, Charles Bourbon – which might account for some peculiar resonances in and around the chapel. How should Antonio Corradini’s sculpture Modesty (aka Veiled Truth) be read, for instance? The answer, as with any esoteric content, depends on the observer’s degree of initiation. The thing is at once allegorical of personal (i.e., an Oedipal complex sublimated unto sublimity), Christian, and orders of Masonic (where’s the Hiram Abiff?!) meaning. It is also clearly a nod to the veiled Isis at Sais, sister-wife of Osiris***, the inscription beneath which, according to the 5th-century Neoplatonist Proclus, amending Plutarch, once read: “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no one has ever lifted my garment. The fruit of my womb was the sun.” Her virgin birth of Ra prefigured Mary’s of Christ: links in a long chain of solar deities produced by parthenogenesis.

But I digress. And haven’t left room to discuss The Veiled Christ of Giuseppe Sanmartino – a sculpture so good that Antonio Canova (another would-be Faust?) once declared he’d give up ten years of his life to have carved it. So good, the veil was believed to be the result of an alchemical mineralization process. So good that di Sangro was rumored to have blinded Sanmartino afterward to prevent him from sculpting again.

Or the fact that di Sangro either figured out how to plasticize the vasculature of human bodies two centuries before Gunther von Hagens did or else discovered a sculptor of alien genius who could simulate it.

Or so much else. Pity.

When the prince died in 1771, the chapel was in the process of being tiled, floor to ceiling, to look like the maze world of Hellraiser 2. I’m not sure the labyrinth was meant to be completed before his death, however. Benedetto Croce reports a local legend about an abortive resurrection attempt (to do with Raimondo ordering a slave to chop him to pieces, put the meat in a magical box, and instruct the rest of the di Sangros as to when he’d finish reconstituting himself and they could open its lid – instructions they ignored, obviously, opening the box prematurely and causing his screaming, half-fused carcass to be yanked into hell). A maze, after all, isn’t actually for one’s getting out of, but for preventing their escape.

*For more on the nightmarish, but very talented, Carlo Gesualdo, see my previous post, “Chromatic Dragon“.

Yes, that net was carved from marble.

**Raimondo’s mother died eleven months after giving birth to him. Sometime thereafter, his father, Antonio di Sangro, Duke of Torremaggiore and legitimate heir to the principate of his father, Paolo (sixth Prince of Sansevero and a Knight of the Golden Fleece), took a fancy to a young woman. Her father, for whatever reason, didn’t approve of the match. So Antonio killed him. Then, after the Mayor of Sansevero charged Antonio with murder, he fled to the Habsburg court in Vienna, waited until he was exonerated, rode back to Sansevero and killed the Mayor too. That was a bit much, even by the standards of 18th-century Naples, so he beat a retreat to a Roman monastery, yielded the family titles and property up to young Raimondo, and hunkered down to a life of legally immunized Christian contemplation.

***Behind the Palazzo Sansevero is the statue of Nile (and the best vinyl shop in the city – Tattoo Records). Which puts me in mind of the Nile fish (the medjed – a species of elephantfish worshipped at Per-Medjed, later Oxyrhynchus, Egypt) that is supposed to have eaten the penis of Osiris. Something curious must have happened as that powerful pecker passed through a piscine digestive tract: Oxyrhynchus is where, a hundred years ago, fragments of The Gospel of Thomas first surfaced. As far as Team Ichthys mascots go, the medjed is pretty great. Like all Mormyrinae, it has an enormous brain for its size (3.1% of its body mass, as compared to 2% in humans), which consumes an ungodly amount of bodily available oxygen: as much as 60% of the total O2 consumed by the fish, as compared to 20% in human brains. Most of the energy generated by that consumption is put to work producing and interpreting electrical fields through a variety of adaptations for sophisticated electroreception in the medjed’s gigantocerebellum. I mean, if you’re going to feed the multitude and one course is metaphorical fish, it might as well be something theophagus with a huge fucking brain that sees and speaks electrically in ways that enable it to survive, age after age, down in the mud.

Monmouth Strikes Again

November 1, 2021

Monmouth Strikes Again,” the second installment of my, ah, idiosyncratic field guide to Naples, Italy is up at HILOBROW. Apart from the puns, there are two new paintings by Eric Sweet, a doctored photograph originally by Augusto Ronchi, references to Pausanias and Diodorus Siculus, and the mellow late-Republic stylings of Gaius Valerius Catullus. All in 500 words, including two endnotes.

For those scant few of you who missed the first installment – to do with the periodic liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro, and much besides – you’re in luck: “Blood Simple” is back in print.

Keep your peepers peeled for a third installment – ostensibly, about the feet of the Farnese Herakles (my favorite sculptural detail in my favorite city).