Guido Boggiani and the Indelible Marking of the Skin

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In 1895, the Ethnologist Guido Boggiani read a paper at the Secondo Congresso Geografico Italiano concerning the designs on the skin of two Peruvian mummies in an Italian museum. A pamphlet of the talk was published, entitled Tatuaggio o Pittura? In which Boggiani made the claim that these pictures on the skin were paintings rather then tattoos, as earlier writers such as Joest had asserted. Boggiani made the claim that the indelible quality of the images was achieved by the use of a dye extracted from the plant Genipa Oblongifolia, also known as Genipapo, which had a corrosive effect on the skin, which caused a more lasting effect then other dyes. It was also thought to ward off spirits.

 

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This booklet is illustrated with six drawings which are painstaking reconstructions of the designs found on the mummies, as well as two full page more natural drawings of the limbs of the mummies in a natural posture, as above. In all of these drawings Boggiani’s extreme fascination for this art on the skin is obvious. It is perhaps natural that Boggiani argued for this skin art to be that of painting, because he was first trained as a painter, and a successful one at that. His paintings sold for large sums at an early age.

Boggiani was drawn into ethnology during a votage to exhibit his paintings in Buenos Aires, where he met several expatriate Italians whose accounts of Paraguay led him to embark on a new career as an ethnologist, making return trips to the Americas to collect artifacts.

 

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In the year after this booklet is published, however, Boggiani would return to Asuncion convinced that photography was the best way to capture the indigenous people he chose to study, and the photos he left behind – some of which are now held by the Ethnological Museum of Berlin – are valued as important early work in ethnological photography and the photography of tattoos.

 

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Boggiani’s embrace of the young medium of photography may have led to his death. Though the exact circumstances of his demise are unknown, he was found in a remote area of the Gran Chaco with his skull destroyed and his camera and negatives buried in the ground around him. It was widely believed at the time that these measures were an effort to suppress the threat of photography.

This particular example of the booklet is intriguing as it has a distribution stamp from a bookstore in Asunción, the last city where Boggiani was seen alive. Even at the time this was probably a very academic publication with a limited distribution. It may be irresponsible conjecture, but I wonder if this may have been one of a number of copies Boggiani may have brought to Asunción himself.

Boggiani, Guido. Tatuaggio o Pittura? Studio Intorno ad una Curiosa Usanza Delle Popolazioni Indigene Dell’Antico Peru. Roma: Stabilimento Tipografico G. Civelli, 1895. First edition. Small 4to, 32 [2] pp, printed wraps. Text in Italian. Illustrated with 6 reproductions in the text, and two full page reproductions following the text, all from drawings by Boggiani. Includes bibliographic references. Contemporary bookstore stamp from Libreria y Papeleria Asuncion to cover.

Moderately toned, with some short tears and chipping to margins, and foxing to margins, aforementioned bookstore stamp, but very good. Scarce in the trade. Inquire

 

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