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American Imago 61.1 (2004) 7-33

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Forgetting Signorelli:
Monstrous Visions of the Resurrection of the Dead

Margaret E. Owens
Department of English
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4L9

"For I had already been in a grave once."
—Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
"I have had no looking-glasse in my grave, to see how my body looks in the dissolution."
—John Donne, "Sermon Preached at Lincoln's Inn on Job 19:26 (Easter Term[?] 1620)"

Few visitors to Orvieto spend more than an afternoon taking in the major sights. A current American guidebook to Italy advises tourists that the Umbrian hilltown, celebrated for its combination of Etruscan antiquities, Gothic architecture, and Renaissance art, not to mention its eponymous white wine, "has a good half day of sightseeing." German tourists, who far outnumber the Americans visiting Orvieto, seem to have received similar guidance. Each day brings a fresh influx of visitors: in the hour or so before noon, automobiles and tour buses converge on Orvieto, having set out earlier that morning from Rome, Florence, or Siena. First on the travelers' itinerary is the cathedral, with its magnificent series of apocalyptic frescoes by Luca Signorelli. Typically, a tour of the cathedral will be closely followed by a descent into the Etruscan grottoes for a subterranean glimpse into the town's pre-Christian past.

It seems that the tourist itinerary for Orvieto has remained fairly constant over the past hundred years, as this was roughly Freud's program when he visited the hilltown and its environs during his tour of northern Italy in September 1897. Freud kept a relentless pace during his fortnight of travel, rarely spending more than one night in a town. While the visit to Orvieto was brief, Freud's encounter with the Signorelli frescoes and the Etruscan necropolis proved momentous, supplying fodder for The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and for [End Page 7] the development of the concepts of parapraxis and repression published in "The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness" (1898) and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901).1 Orvieto, it seems, was both unforgettable and significantly forgettable. Among the array of charming Tuscan and Umbrian towns that Freud visited on this trip (Siena, San Gimignano, Chiusi, Orte, Terni, Spoleto, Assisi, Perugia, Arezzo), Orvieto stood out: for it was here that Freud encountered death and triumphed over it, here that he descended to the grave and emerged safely, here that he was dissected, buried, and resurrected. As the discussion of the dream of "Dissecting My Own Pelvis" in the Traumdeutung reveals, Orvieto provided Freud with the oddly comforting knowledge that he had "already" been in a grave:

For I had already been in a grave once, but it was an excavated Etruscan grave near Orvieto, a narrow chamber with two stone benches along its walls, on which the skeletons of two grown-up men were lying. The inside of the wooden house in the dream looked exactly like it, except that the stone was replaced by wood. The dream seems to have been saying: "If you must rest in a grave, let it be the Etruscan one." And, by making this replacement, it transformed the gloomiest of expectations into one that was highly desirable.
(1900, 454-55)

Although Freud never draws a connection between the dream of the Etruscan tomb and the Signorelli parapraxis, other scholars, most prominently Anthony Wilden, have seized upon the correspondences between the two subjects. Indeed, Freud's acknowledgment (if not recognition) of such a connection was effectively foreclosed in the discussion of the Signorelli parapraxis in the Psychopathology through his denial of the relevance of the content of the frescoes.

Since the Signorelli parapraxis is relatively well known, having attracted considerable attention from historians of psychoanalysis as well as Lacan and Lacanian theorists, I will supply only a brief summary here. I draw freely from both published accounts of the incident, as the differences between them, while of interest to scholars, are not central to my [End Page 8] concerns. The episode of forgetting "Signorelli" occurred in September 1898...


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