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Sacred Fragment of 19th-Century Saint’s Brain Stolen from Italian Basilica

A sacred fragment of 19th-century saint John Bosco’s brain was stolen from an Italian basilica, sparking rumors of Satanic rituals.
Reliquary containing the venerated brain fragment of John Bosco
Reliquary containing the venerated brain fragment of John Bosco

Over the weekend a venerated relic of St. John Bosco was stolen from the Castelnuovo Don Bosco basilica near Turin, Italy. The relic is a small piece of Bosco’s brain, obtained in 1929 when he was exhumed for beatification and canonization as a saint.

The church and media have expressed concern that the relic may be used in for Satanic rituals, or will be held for ransom.

John Bosco (known popularly as “Don” Bosco, a traditional Italian title of honor for priests) was born in 1815. Following a series of dreams in his childhood, he became an ordained catholic priest in 1841 and devoted himself to helping disadvantaged children and saving them from a life of degradation. He founded the Salesian Congregation to further his cause. At the time of his death in 1888, the order was helping 130,000 children in 250 houses. His dying message is said to be, “Tell the boys that I shall be waiting for them all in Paradise.”

Saint Don Bosco
Catholic saint Don Bosco

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Bosco was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934. According to the Catholic News Agency, he is the patron saint of “young people, apprentices, and Catholic publishers and editors.”

The reliquary containing the brain fragment was discovered missing Saturday night. Authorities set up road blocks and began pouring through security videos, but the perpetrator has yet to be apprehended.

Other relics of John Bosco were used in the creation of a lifesize wax sculpture of the saint, which was created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2015.

Pilgrims who come to the basilica overlooking the place of Bosco’s birth are praying for the relic’s return.

Tomb of Saint John Bosco

UPDATE: Fingerprints lead police to the home of a 42-year-old man who had hoped to sell the glass case containing the relic. It was found intact hidden in a copper kettle in the man’s kitchen. Read the article right here.

Death and Burial in Venice: What Does the Floating City do with Its Dead?

In Venice the dead are ferried through the canals on ornate funeral gondolas to a cemetery island where their afterlife is only guaranteed for as long as they can pay.
San Michele cemetery island in Venice
San Michele cemetery island in Venice. Photo by Spirosk Photography

The city of Venice, known primarily for its 26 miles of weaving canals and waterways, is situated among 117 small islands in a shallow lagoon in Northern Italy. You can’t dig too far without hitting water, and real estate is limited, but the dead were buried within the city for years in what became known as campielli dei morti, or “little fields of the dead.”

Eventually, though, Venetians needed somewhere else to go with their mortal remains.

The small island of Sant’ Ariano, a remote islet only accessible by a desolate winding route through shallow channels and mud flats, was once home to a Benedictine monastery where nuns from the most distinguished Venice families lived before environmental decay drove them to nearby Torcello. In 1565, long abandoned by that point, the island was sanctioned by the Venetian Senate for use as an ossario. It became a dumping place for remains that were being removed from the city’s cemeteries to make room for new burials, and was in use for over three hundred years. By the time the island was finally closed in 1933, a layer of bones three meters deep had amassed within it’s stone walls, which can still be found today beneath the thickly overgrown brush.

In The World of Venice author Jan Morris describes a visit to the charnel island in which she shares a rather macabre anecdote regarding the repurposing of its inhabitants:

“It is only a year or two since the monthly bone-barge ploughed its slow way to Sant Ariano, freighted with anonymous remains, and a guide book to the lagoon published in 1904 observes darkly that modern industry makes use of its unnamed skeletons, without scruple, for the refining of sugar.”

Sant Ariano occario in Venice
Sant’ Ariano ossario, dumping grounds for the dead evicted from Venice

In 1807, under French occupation, burial within the city was deemed unsanitary due to disease that washed up from the graves through flooding. An island called San Cristoforo was then designated as the city’s new burial grounds. In 1836, the canal between it and a neighboring island was filled in to create a single 4-acre cemetery called San Michele.

Due to extremely limited space, however, San Michele wasn’t necessarily a final resting place. After a period of 12 years, if families were unable to pay maintenance fees, the remains of their loved ones were exhumed and relocated to Sant’ Ariano to make room for new burials. This practice is still employed today, but since the ossuario is no longer in use, evicted remains share a common grave on San Michele.

Funeral Gondolas of the Venice Canals

Venice funeral gondola
Venetian funeral gondola

In the 1912 book Death in Venice, author Thomas Mann likens a gondola ride to a funeral. “That strange vehicle,” he writes, “which seems unchanged from more fanciful times and which is so strangely black like normally only coffins are, reminds one of silent and criminal adventures in the lapping night, furthermore it is reminiscent of death itself, the bier, the drab funeral and the final, wordless ride. And has one noticed that the coffin-black-varnished, black-upholstered chair in such a barge is the
softest, most luxurious, most deeply relaxing seat in the whole world?

A gondola ride used to be a prestigious affair for affluent members of Venetian society. These days, however, it is regarded as “shamelessly touristy” according to Walks of Italy, and you are unlikely to find a local on one (besides the gondolier) unless it’s for a wedding ceremony or a funeral. Touristy or not, what’s not to love about the idea of being ferried through the Venice lagoon toward the sweet hereafter?

An 1879 issue of The American Magazine described the grandeur of a Venice burial:

“In Venice, the City of the Sea, the poetry of burial is more fully brought out than in any other part of Italy. Indeed, many of the usages and customs in this city are beautiful in the extreme, and, in the case of the burial of the dead, often picturesque and touching beyond description. In the case of a young maiden who had early closed her eyes on the loves and sorrows of this world, the ceremony of conveying her to the grave was marked by the poetry and grace so inseparable from all the customs of the sunny land of Italy. The dead girl was conveyed in a gondola through the canals to her last resting place, in some small island necropolis close to the city. In this funeral vessel, the body, sometimes elegantly attired and covered with flowers, reclined on a raised couch, beside which her nearest relatives knelt, while a priest sat at the foot of the bier, chanting the service for the dead, in which the bearer of a sacred standard with a cross joined. The solemnity and impressiveness of the mournful cortège could scarcely be surpassed.

“In the case of a noble, or high dignitary of the state, more pomp was displayed. The funeral gondola, highly decorated and blazing with lights and torches, passed through the principal canals of the city, followed and accompanied by others similarly, though less elaborately, ornamented. Priests in their sacred robes, and the friends and official companions of the deceased, occupied the funeral barge. The cortège, after passing through the city, proceeded to the necropolis, where the remains were laid away with fitting pomp, to await the last trump which shall call the dead to life.”

The funeral procession of Daniel Manin in Venice, 1868
Funeral procession carrying the remains of Daniel Manin on the Grand Canal, from the London Illustrated News, 1868

But it seems no funeral in the canals of Venice was as grand as the procession held in 1868 for patriot and revolutionary Daniele Manin a decade after his death. Manin, a hero for the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, spent his last days exiled in Marseille by Austrian forces that took Venice in 1849. Upon his death, he was interred in the family tomb of painter Ary Scheffer in Paris.

Austria departed Venice following the Third Italian War of Independence in 1866. Manin was exhumed two years later and brought home to Venice. His ashes were carried down the Grand Canal in a “magnificent” procession of black-draped gondolas to his final resting place at St Mark’s Basilica. According to Cook’s Handbook to Venice, published in 1874 by Thomas Cook & Son, Manin was the first in three centuries to receive the holy rite of burial there.

“The funeral gondola was decorated with much taste,” the book says, “the bow being surmounted by the lion of St. Mark, resplendent with gold, and bearing the Venetian standard veiled with black crape. On both sides of the vessel, from fore to aft, ran transparencies, on which were painted the arms of the principal towns of Italy. At the stern stood two silvery colossal statues, representing the union of Italy with Venetia. Behind these two symbolical figures waved the national colours of Italy. At every angle rose up gigantesque torches and columns with cinerary urns.”

Venice cemetery island San Michele
The Venice cemetery island of San Michele. Photo by Diogo Valério

Mortality in Wax: Hellish Tableaus from the 17th & 18th Centuries

Italian wax relief sculptures from the 1600-1800s depict death and the battle for the mortal soul.
Damned Soul Wax relief

Morbid Anatomy recently shared an entry posted to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog last October called Welcome to Hell! with some incredible and macabre depictions of death in wax. These highly detailed and unnerving scenes were memento mori, serving as reminders of mortality.

Here are some of the gruesome wax reliefs in the museum’s collection:

Damned Soul wax relief
“Damned Soul” wax relief done in the style of Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, Italy, ca. 1670-1700.

Souls at death and purgatory
souls-wax-relief-2
Group of four coloured wax reliefs, possibly by Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, Italian, probably 1620s. Showing (from top left): Soul at Death; Soul in Purgatory; Blessed Soul; Damned Soul.

Time and Death wax relief
Time and Death, wax relief, Naples, 1700-1740, attributed to Caterina de Julianis, Italy (probably Naples), before 1727.

Photos and info via Victoria and Albert Museum

Altamura Man: Skeleton Stuck in Stone Yields Oldest Neanderthal DNA

Tests reveal the fossilized remains of the Altamura Man are around 150,000 years old and contain the oldest Neanderthal DNA ever extracted.
The ancient Neanderthal remains of the Altamura Man stuck in stone in a cave in Italy

A recent study of the Altamura Man, an ancient skeleton embedded in a limestone cave in Italy, has yielded surprising results. The fossilized Homo neanderthalensis, which was discovered in the Grotta di Lamalunga by chance in 1993, have been difficult to study due to the rock and thick calcite layers covering it.

A research project that began in 2009, however, recently concluded through Uranium–thorium dating that the calcite most likely formed there during the Medium Pleistocene period. That means the Altamura Man lived somewhere between 128,000 and 187,000 years old.

Using a sample from the scapula, the study also revealed that the prehistoric remains may contain the oldest Neanderthal DNA ever extracted.

Fossilized remains of the Altamura Man embedded in rock in a cave in Italy

via Research Italy

Otranto Drilled Skull Mystery Solved

Researchers shed light on why this 15th century skull from the Otranto cathedral was drilled to extract bone dust.
Drill holes discovered in Otranto martyr skull

The Otranto cathedral in Italy is the site of a brutal slaughter in the 15th century, when invading Turks beheaded more than 800 Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Surrounding the altar, massive glass cabinets display the remains of those who died tragically defending their faith.

But one skull in particular has attracted attention for an unexpected feature.

Related: Otranto Cathedral Houses Bones of 15th Century Martyrs

In a lower row of the center case, one of the Otranto martyr skulls was discovered to have perfectly shaped drill holes of various sizes. The bones are inaccessible, so the skull must have been drilled prior to its installation in the case in 1711. But why?

Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy have recently solved the mystery. The 16 holes in the cranium of the skull are consistent with a particular type of drill used to extract bone dust for pharmacological preparations.

Beginning as early as the late Middles Ages, bone dust was being used to treat paralysis, stroke, and other illnesses believed to arise from magical or demonic influences. The head was considered the most important part of the body, where spiritual forces remained active even after death. A skull belonging to someone who died a violent, sudden death was considered more powerful, as the spirits had not been consumed by the earth such as those whose remains have been buried.

The added benefit of the skull belonging to a martyr must have made a particularly potent mixture.

Jar used to hold human cranium bone dust concoctions
An example of a vase used to hold human cranium preparations

There are no indications that the skull has any particular significance, however, so the reason it was chosen from hundreds of others remains a mystery.

via Discovery