appears that Italians are not asking as many questions as
they used to. At an earlier time, such curious souls as Leonardo,
Galileo and Giordano Bruno dared to bring scientific skepticism
to bear on the popular fallacies of their day. Today the Italian
media and public swoon over weeping plaster casts of religious
figures, charismatic faith healers and anything that bleeds,
sweats or moves in an unexpected way. But I take it as a cautionary
sign that rampant disregard for rational thought is sweeping
a nation that has made so many contributions to modern science.
Fortunately, Italy still has people like
Luigi Garlaschelli, an energetic and observant scientist in
the department of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia.
When not occupied with his bread-and-butter research, he and
his colleague Franco Ramaccini work with the Italian Committee
for the Investigation of the Paranormal (CICAP), providing
rational explanations for supposed miracles.
The Italian marvel of the moment consists
of a nationwide epidemic of painted plaster or ceramic Madonna
figures that cry tears of water or blood. The owners of these
religious objects call on devout observers, who are kept at
a respectful distance, to testify to the wonder. In one recent
case, no less than a chief of police affirmed that he had
witnessed the phenomenon. With that sort of validation, the
case for a supernatural origin seems - to the media and thus
to much of the public - confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even the slightest scientific prying shows
that something suspicious is going on. The bloody tears of
one well-promoted Madonna, for instance, tested to be of masculine
origin; undaunted, the local priest declared that the Madonna
would of course shed male blood - the blood of her Son. A
magistrate investigating the case demanded that the owner
of the wondrous statue submit to DNA tests of his own blood,
but the parishioner piously objected on the grounds that such
miracles should not ever be questioned, let alone tested.
It is not hard to understand why. Garlaschelli
has demonstrated that almost any ceramic or plaster figure
can be prepared to exude mock tears or blood by drilling a
tiny hole in the top of the head, injecting a liquid and then
scratching away a thin line of glaze below the eyes. More
simply, a hollow plaster figure can be filled with a liquid,
then drained. The porous material retains some fluid, and
tearlike drops will begin to flow from the eyes while a pool
of liquid gathers about the base (an attendant condition that
is often described). The process leaves no obvious clues.
The reluctance of owners to let skeptics such as Garlaschelli
examine their Madonnas has made it difficult to assess his
From time to time, another variety of sanguinary
miracle is trumpeted in the Italian press. Back in 1264, Pope
Urban IV established the Feast of Corpus Christi in honor
of a mass at Bolsena, a town near Rome, when the communion
host allegedly dripped blood. Since then, bread, polenta,
cooked potatoes and other foodstuffs have regularly been reported
The bright crimson patches that spontaneously
appear on the food certainly resemble blood, but chemical
analysis has revealed no trace of hemoglobin, believed to
be a requirement even of supernatural blood. In contrast,
the fungus Serratia marcescens - a harmless microorganism
known to thrive on most starchy, nonacidic foods in warm,
moist environments - has been very evident at the scene of
the miracle. S. marcescens, it should be noted, has
a startling, blood-red color. Garlaschelli has cultured the
fungus on ordinary white bread and finds that it exactly duplicates
the acclaimed miracle.
Johanna Cullen, a pre-med student at George
Mason University, has researched the history of the Miracle
of Bolsena. She finds that miraculous appearances occur from
May to September (with a dramatic peak in July), when conditions
are most likely to be warm and humid; the red spots appear
on a variety of foods, including chicken, that satisfy the
requirements for the growth of S. marcescens. Cullen
concludes that the most celebrated miracle of the 13th century
"may be more microbiological than metaphysical."
The most enduring religious curiosity that
has attracted Garlaschelli's sleuthing is a heavily publicized,
annual rite that takes place at the Cathedral of Naples. The
story goes that when the third-century Christian known as
Gennaro was martyred by decapitation, a bystander bottled
some of the victim's blood and saved it. Every year an archbishop
at the Cathedral of Naples trots out two vials said to contain
the martyr's congealed blood. When inverted before a packed
congregation, the substance in the vials liquefies and changes
from reddish brown to bright red, a transformation taken as
a sign that all is well with Naples.
Garlaschelli and Ramaccini have whipped
up a mixture that replicates the transformation: it liquefies
and changes color with a simple shake, even though neither
of the investigators is an archbishop. They made it from materials
found in the vicinity of the relic, using techniques available
to medieval tinkerers. As for the "blood" in the vials, the
church has steadfastly refused to allow samples to be taken,
so no chemical analysis has been performed.
I do not object to faith in wonders so
long as it does not insist on being taken as fact. But when
blind belief refuses scientific inquiry, I bristle. We have
fought long and hard to escape from medieval superstition.
I for one do not wish to go back.
is a professional magician, author and lecturer.