FANTAST IN FOCUS: IVAN CENZI

Ivan Cenzi is a kindred spirit. As the curator of the virtual wunderkammer Bizzarro Bazar, he trawls the depths of the human and animal kingdoms to unearth strange, bizarre, and often macabre stories. When he isn’t clambering through ancient catacombs or writing about “invisible” castles, he shares spooky videos like this. One could say that Ivan is an evangelist of dark wonder; an intellectual Charles Fort with the intrepidity of Indiana Jones and the morbid wit of Edgar Allan Poe. We caught up with him to find out more about his interests in the power and purpose of weird history .

The Custodian: You launched Bizzarro Bazar in 2009. There weren’t many websites around at the time that explicitly focused on ephemera and wunderkammern. What first sparked your interest in the world of curiosities?

Ivan Cenzi: Ever since I woke up here, I have always felt the only appropriate response to this universe is one of awe and amazement. We all know that deep inside, but every now and then people need to be reminded; I guess that’s why they enjoy some of stories I write about, which they perceive as strange, weird and extraordinary. You ask me about ‘curiosities’, but the way I look at it, there is no such thing as a non-curiosity – even the most trivial detail carries unexpected marvels, hidden surprises. The world is indeed an immense cabinet of wonders.

Ivan Cenzi.

Ivan Cenzi.

C: Romantic and Gothic novels are usually set in a haunted Italian castle or manor. Would you say that your writings are helping to re-create that image and in doing so present the country as an alternative destination for dark tourism?

I: Allow me an autobiographical confession: looking back at my school days, I might have felt my country was quite boring. As kids, we were taught Italy had a long and rich past, wonderful landscapes, beautiful art, and of course great food. But this image was much too innocent and charming for me. I was quite a precocious reader, and had already gone through all of Edgar Allen Poe’s works by the time I was eleven, so I thought I could never find that kind of atmosphere on the bright and sunny shores of Italy. I needed darkness to complete the picture.

Of course at that time I didn’t realise (and no one told me) that Italy had its own disturbing, macabre face.

Image from "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe via The British Library.

Image from “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe via The British Library.

Just think of our history – we’ve had it all: wars, invasions, purges, crusades, inquisitions, floods, earthquakes, plagues, epidemics, volcano explosions,  mad kings, mad emperors, mad popes, mad dictators, and mad prime ministers (the last one’s an ongoing tradition). All of these centuries of lunacy cannot help but creep under a people’s skin and become part of the culture.

As soon as I understood that, I began searching for a different kind of beauty, and found Italy was actually a treasure chest, chock-full of odd places – from crypts decorated with human bones to collections of instruments of torture, from mummified human remains to the most startling relics of saints.

Image from "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole via The British Library.

Image from “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole via The British Library.

Beginning with the birth of anatomy, and the thrill of visiting many astounding medical collections, I became interested in human oddities, and therefore in circus and sideshow history, and over time I began exploring all kinds of odd intersections between science, art, and the sacred.

Considering the educational system tends to omit what is considered embarrassing, I guess it is not particularly surprising that international tourists show a better knowledge of Italy’s dark attractions than Italians themselves. Through my work, I am trying to raise awareness first and foremost in my own country. I believe we should embrace this side of our past, which is very fascinating, but even universities, museums and institutions seem to be somewhat afraid or disdainful.

There still is a strong stigma attached to the word “macabre”, and I think we should lift it once and for all. Today this word is tarnished by a morbid connotation, but I am willing to get it back to its noble origins, and assess the pivotal role this concept played in Western culture. The word itself comes from a dance performed in the Middle Ages to honor the Holy Maccabees, and is connected with Qohelet’s havel havalim, which is one of the most influential philosophical constructs in history. This very idea gave birth to the practice of memento mori, to a great part of theology and especially the branch of theodicy, and even to those beautiful vanitas we now exhibit in prestigious museums.

C: What was your most memorable adventure or investigation as the Bizzarro blog curator?

I: I’ve had a good share of experiences most people would find unusual, such as handling severed heads in a pathology museum, or spending a night inside the Palermo Catacomb, in company of the largest collection of mummies in the world. But I guess the most rewarding thing has been the interaction with readers, which is still the reason I invest so much time in this project. I had the chance of meeting historians, illusionists, anthropologists, pathologists, sexologists, filmmakers, collectors, scholars, funeral directors, artists, mummy experts, and a whole bunch of incredibly interesting people.

Still-Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne via Wikimedia Commons.

Still-Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne via Wikimedia Commons.


C: Can you tell us more about your personal collection of oddities?


I: It is just a small collection mirroring my interests. Human and animal bones, taxidermy, wet specimens, antique medical instruments, ritual or death-related artifacts, some early century erotica, lots of ancient books and etchings. I once wrote a post about it, which sums it up quite well.  Apart from the more or less ‘traditional’ mirabilia you would find in many wunderkammern, what is perhaps the most personal characteristic is the theme of human cruelty, underlying some of the objects I collect.

C: You contribute to various ‘death-positive’ websites, such as Morbid Anatomy and Death Salon. What’s your view of the memento mori artistic and philosophical genre?

I: As I’ve said, the havel havalim (“all is futile”) from the Bible is such a definitive, merciless, harsh statement that our culture has never been able to really shake it off its back. And this terror of life being possibly meaningless and devoid of substance has haunted artists and thinkers for centuries, giving rise to spectacular works of art and literature.

In relation to the death-positive movement, which I clearly endorse, one thing that always strikes me is how the sentence memento mori is often misused nowadays. It has become a sort of substitute for Horace’s carpe diem, while it actually meant quite the opposite. Memento mori was not intended as “remember you will die, so enjoy life while you can”, but rather “don’t revel in earthly pleasures, because death will come and with it, God’s judgment”. That said, in the past this idea also encouraged some positive responses. I will be talking precisely about this “bright side” of memento mori at the Death, Art & Anatomy conference in Winchester, next June.

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“Mors Pretiosa: Italian Religious Ossuaries” by Ivan Cenzi and Carlo Vannini.

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“De Profundis: The Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples” by Ivan Cenzi and Carlo Vannini.

"The Eternal Vigil: Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo" by Ivan Cenzi.

“The Eternal Vigil:
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo by Ivan Cenzi and Carlo Vannini.

C: You’ve got three beautiful books out–what’s next?

I: I’m currently working on my new book, which will again feature Carlo Vannini‘s wonderful photographs. But no spoilers!

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To follow Ivan in his quest to “keep the world weird” have a look at his website and reach out to him on Twitter and Facebook.

One thought on “Fantast in Focus: Ivan Cenzi of Bizzarro Bazar

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