When genius keeps company with corpses

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MOST OF the people who hang around outside 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester cannot say why they are there (according to Isabel Hilton, Independent, 12 March). I should guess admiration has something to do with it. The brute fact that the address has yielded nine bodies is enough to give it mythical status. The address alone fascinates.

In the symbolism of dreams, a house is often a representation of the body. So a house containing bodies would be a body containing bodies. What the pilgrims of Gloucester are coming to see is a symbol of great potency - a body that, in psychic terms, has devoured its enemies and has retained them.

This symbol has been much employed in horror stories, and so the house has been dubbed the House of Horror. But the people on the street outside are not horror- struck. If horror comes to them, it comes by the frisson, not the full dosage.

The people who paid homage at the spot where James Bulger was killed were acting out of horror and sympathy. The people on Cromwell Street, at best, seem to be treating the affair as a lurid fiction devised for their entertainment. Fascination, wonder, admiration seem to be the responses provoked. How many bodies can an ordinary house and garden yield up? Is this a world record or only a British one?

I came across the same kind of admiration in two very different contexts recently. One was indeed an entertainment, Steve Berkoff's one-man show in the West End, where he acted out The Tell-tale Heart, a murder story Edgar Allan Poe wrote in deadly earnest, but which Berkoff put across by making it hilarious.

So the murderer was nasty and admirable, while the old man, his victim, was repugnant not only, as in the story, to the murderer, but also to us. The skill with which the murderer performed his task somehow elided with the skill of the actor. At the end of the evening, frisson apart, one might say well, no, one had not been afraid, or horror- struck, or subject to any of the emotions appropriate to the story. But one had admired the thing throughout.

The second context is even further removed, and concerns the immense efforts of the Italian artists of the Renaissance to obtain, dissect and study corpses. It was not just Michelangelo and Leonardo who did this. There were (according to the fascinating book Born Under Saturn by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower) many more.

One, Bartolomeo Torri, was thrown out of his master's house 'for no other reason than his filthy Anatomy, for which he kept so many bits and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over the room, that they poisoned the whole house. Besides, by neglecting himself, and by thinking that to live like a foolish philosopher, dirty and wayward, and to avoid the society of other men was the best way to become great and immortal, he ruined himself completely.'

In other words, the unfortunate Torri had chosen the wrong way to earn the admiration of posterity, even though two of the three faults mentioned (anatomy and solitude, but not the neglect of personal hygiene) are recommended by Leonardo for aspiring artists.

One supposes, from the Wittkowers' account, that the squalor of Torri's room was not unique. Lodovico Cigoli, who studied anatomy under Alessandro Allori, was so affected by the filth and horror that he lost his memory and began to have fits, until he was sent away.

Silvio Corsini, a sculptor, 'disinterred a corpse of one who had been hanged the day before, and dissected it for art's sake. Being an eccentric, and perhaps even a wizard, and a person who believed in spells and similar follies, he flayed it completely, and from the skin . . . he made himself a jerkin which he wore for some time without telling anybody, believing that it had some great virtue.'

Paolo Guidotti 'was so inquisitive in matters of anatomy that it was his habit to go by night to those cemeteries where he knew a man had been recently buried, and from the interred corpse he took what part of the body he wanted for his use, and carrying it to a solitary place, as for instance the highest part of the Colosseum, he dissected it and drew such studies of it as he required.'

The reason why these activities had to be secret derives from a misinterpreted papal bull of 1300, which banned the practice of boiling crusaders' corpses in order to facilitate their transport home. The important effect was that (although no one seems to have accused them of killing for the purposes of research) these artists lived a life which was on the wrong side of the law and kept them in circumstances physically similar to the horrific scenes discovered in, say, the apartment of Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic mass murderer.

Leonardo wrote that, if you have a love for anatomical research, 'you will perhaps be hindered by your stomach, and if this does not prevent you, you may perhaps be deterred by the fear of living during the night in the company of quartered and flayed corpses'. Certainly he pushed such things to the limit, dissecting the corpse of a 100- year-old man with whom he had been talking only hours before, anatomising the erection of a hanged man (to discover erections are caused by blood rather than by air).

His method of studying the arteries by injecting them with wax and then cutting away the surrounding tissue would have made the work immensely time-consuming and therefore repulsive. (Even Dahmer had deep freezes.)

That Leonardo was not what you would call normal can be easily conceded, but whether you would connect this chosen way of life with that of the psychopath is open to question. Physically and symbolically there is a resemblance, which is why perhaps not everyone could stand the strain of it. Leonardo could break the taboos surrounding corpses (he is reputed to have dissected more than 30), but he had his own taboos, which might indicate his original cast of mind or perhaps the price he had to pay. He seems to have had a horror of intercourse with women. He certainly had a horror of eating meat (making your mouth a sepulchre for animals, as he put it). There is also a violent, even hysterical, passage about man being the only animal to practise cannibalism.

But Leonardo had an overt purpose (the production of a book on anatomy) and justification: 'O speculator on this machine of ours, let it not distress you that you give knowledge of it through another's death, but rejoice that our Creator has placed the intellect on such a superb instrument.'

A mass murderer such as Dahmer has only a covert purpose, a purpose which it would be hard, if not impossible, to unravel. Yet in both cases you could say that power is involved - power as in the pursuit of ultimate knowledge, power as in mastery of the subject, in the case of Leonardo. In the case of Dahmer, power as in the possession of one's enemies.

The Times was pursuing a young woman last week to ask why she had sent Dahmer, in prison, pounds 4,000. Her reply was, 'Why don't you get in touch with the other people who send him stuff?' Perhaps these other people have the same kind of feeling about Dahmer as we have about Leonardo. Yes, he had a messy job, but still he represents a kind of genius.