ODD TRUTHS: A FIFTEENTH-CENTURY GHOSTHUNTER

“This man [Alexander ab Alexandro] is familiar with everyone, and yet no one knows him.”

-from Letter to Viglius Zuichemus by Desiderius Erasmus (1533).

 Born in Naples in 1461, Alexander ab Alexandro (also known as Alessandro Alessandri) spent the first part of his life as a practising lawyer. At some point however, Alexandro grew exasperated with the chicanery and tedium of the justice system and decided that he had had enough. To finalise his shift to the dark side, Alexandro, remembering the philosophy lessons of his youth, resumed his classical studies. But something remarkable was destined to come from his mid-life change of heart. From the funeral pyre of his former life, a phoenix emerged which took the form of a career in storytelling.

Image from Alexandro’s The Genial Days (1570 edition).

With a renewed interest in the weird and marvellous, Alexandro penned an eclectic tome called The Genial Days, a compilation of grammatical notes, flaneur-style observations, and anecdotes. Modelled after The Attic Nights by Aulus Gellius, the work also includes various mirabilia and facetiae, such as ghost stories and witness accounts of monsters (one of which concerns a lusty, vegetarian merman). Another one of these tales seemingly derives from Alexandro’s personal experiences as an amateur ghosthunter in Rome.

Rome circa 1500. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexandro’s Rome was quite different from today’s Rome of heavily curated art galleries and atmospheric museums. In the fifteenth century and early sixteenth century, the city was a shadow of its former glory, a gloomy testament to the civil wars that it had endured in the Middle Ages. Gangs prowled its streets, robbers desecrated its catacombs, and spirits were said to haunt its dilapidated houses and abandoned ruins. Rome’s deserted buildings also occasionally served as the hangouts for ne’er-do-wells hoping to communicate with the netherworld. Probably the most descriptive account of such sub rosa undertakings comes from Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography. In one section, the infamous artist claims to have snuck into the Colosseum with an assistant and a priest to perform a demonic evocation. To Cellini’s chagrin, the ceremony turns out to be a not-so-pleasant success.

Image from Alexandro’s The Genial Days (1532 edition).

In Alexandro’s narrative, Alexandro states that he and his friend Nicholas Tuba decided to spend a night in one of Rome’s many haunted houses. Both friends are startled by a shadowy ghost who frightens them with a booming voice. However, the spectre dissipates in the candlelight, leaving them both in peace. Alexandro’s next encounter is a little more spine-tingling. While sleeping in a room with his client Mark, a spirit passes through the closed door, darts underneath Alexandro’s bed, and extinguishes the candles with its arm. To make matters worse, it violently scatters all the papers on Alexandro’s bedside table. Luckily the apparition, like the first ghost, flees after several other companions come to their rescue with lights.

Excerpt from The Genial Days (Book five, chapter twenty-three).

What are we to make of Alexandro’s story? Is it a tall tale, or a candid retelling of a true event? In his own time, Alexandro’s reputation was called into question by famed emblematist Andrea Alciati. In a letter dated to 1521, Alciati suggests that Alexandro appears to have a tendency to embellish his writings. Whatever the case, Alexandro’s tale was interesting enough to be included in Augustin Calmet’s lengthy Dissertations upon the Apparitions of Angels, Dæmons, and Ghosts (1746). History may never shed light on Alexandro’s run-ins with phantoms, but, at the very least, the lawyer can be counted with other Italian diarists (such as Girolamo Cardano and Giacomo Casanova) as a gripping storyteller and an appreciator of esoterica.

Image from The Genial Days (1673 edition).

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