Last Updated on 2022/06/20
A heresy trial held in Friuli, Italy in the sixteenth century brings to light the complex cosmogony and worldview of a miller who stunned the inquisitors.
The Complex Cosmogony of a Sixteenth-Century Italian Miller – Weird Italy
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- 1 The Complex Cosmogony of a Sixteenth-Century Italian Miller – Weird Italy
This article is based on the book “The Cheese and the Worms” by Carlo Ginzburg (1976). Carlo Ginzburg is an Italian historian and proponent of the field of microhistory.
History of Menocchio
Menocchio was a miller from Friuli who lived in the sixteenth century and was also the podestà of his town and the surrounding area in 1581 since he could read and write. On September 28, 1583, Menocchio was denounced to the Holy Office on the charge of having uttered and attempted to spread “heretical and impious” words about Christ. These attempts at proselytizing were verified by the informative inquiry. According to what Francesco Fasseta reported to the vicar general, Menocchio was always trying to discuss and argue about faith. Menocchio claimed that he did not believe that the Holy Spirit governed the church, and accused the prelates of hypocrisy. When the provincial parish priest had taken him to Concordia to the vicar general, Menocchio promised that he would never again interfere in religious matters, but he resumed soon after. On February 7, 1584, Menocchio was arrested and taken to the prisons of the Holy Office in Concordia.
During the trial, it is not clear how the villagers reacted to Menocchio’s words since no one was willing to admit that they had listened with approval to his speeches under suspicion of heresy. Although many witnesses during the trial attempted to distance themselves from Menocchio, in reality, they had known him for a long time. Many of Menocchio’s statements dated back 30 years, but no one had ever denounced him.
Even though Menocchio was well-liked in the village, he was denounced anonymously by the parish priest of Montereale, don Odorico Vorai, encouraged by Don Ottavio Montereale, belonging to the family of the lords of the place. The hostility of the local clergy was justified by the fact that Menocchio did not recognize the ecclesiastical hierarchies as having any special authority in matters of faith.
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The cosmogony of Menocchio
Menocchio was accused of blaspheming “immoderately,” but he claimed that blaspheming is not a sin. Menocchio also affirmed that “The air (the breath, the wind) is God and that the Earth is our mother”. God is all that man can imagine and see, and we are gods. He denied the virginity of Mary. He also claimed to have some forbidden books such as the vernacular Bible. During the first phases of the trial, Menocchio was very talkative, admitted his errors, and confirmed the suspicion that he had arrogated to himself the role of master of doctrine (he had said to his fellow villagers “Do you want me to teach you the true way?)
Then Menocchio proceeded to explain his cosmogony. According to Menocchio, in the beginning, everything was chaos: earth, air, water, and fire were mixed. From this stirring of matter, a mass was born, “just as cheese does with milk”. The angels, in this metaphor, would have been the worms in the cheese. Among these worms, there was also God, also generated from the primordial chaos at the same time in which the mass was formed. He was made Lord, with four captains: Lucivello (Lucifer), Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael. Lucivellus tried to rebel against God and make himself king but was cast out because of his haughtiness. God then created Adam and Eve and the people to replace the cast-off hosts of angels. Since the human multitude did not follow God’s word, he sent his son Jesus to earth, but the Jews crucified him. He also said that Jesus was just an ordinary man, made of the same substance as us, but with greater dignity, as the pope might have been.
According to witnesses, Menocchio had said on several occasions in the past that he was eager to declare his views of faith to ecclesiastical and secular authorities. In the presence of the podestà of Portogruaro and the inquisitor of Aquileia and Concordia, Menocchio abandoned all reticence and began to speak.
Menocchio first denounced the oppression exercised by the rich on the poor through the use in the courts of an incomprehensible language such as Latin, and that forced the poor to hire a lawyer able to understand the accusations against them. This was just one example of the disconnect that had occurred between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities and the people.
Menocchio, like many of his contemporaries, felt the need for a church that would abandon its privileges and be closer to the people. But Menocchio went much further. In fact, according to his thought, there was a substantial equivalence between all faiths, based on the illumination granted in equal measure to every man: Christians, Jews, heretics, and Turks were all dear to God. Menocchio declared his rejection of every sacrament, including baptism, confirmation, and marriage, branding them as inventions of men, instruments of exploitation and oppression by the clergy.
Menocchio among all the sacraments spared that of the altar, but it was endured exclusively for its practical qualities, as an educational tool.
Menocchio’s criticism didn’t even spare the Bible: “I believe that the sacred Scripture was given by God, but then it was reworked by men” that instead could have been summarized in a few words because the message of God is simple. Even the gospels, according to Menocchio departed from the word of the lord because of their lack of simplicity and brevity.
Menocchio therefore categorically rejected holy books, sacraments, church hierarchies, relics, and religious icons. The only thing he believed in was good actions. Holiness for him was a model of life, a practical behavior, not anything else. Menocchio denied the divine nature of Jesus and asserted that he had not died to redeem humanity (“If anyone has sinned, let him do penance”).
Where did Menocchio’s ideas come from?
The Friuli of the second half of the sixteenth century was a society with strongly archaic and feudal characteristics, and where institutions such as serfdom, called masnada, had been preserved up to a century earlier, much longer than in the surrounding regions.
The Venetian domination had tried to leave, as far as possible, things as they were before. Over the years, two parties had formed in Friuli, one in favor of the Venetians, another supporting the ancient local feudal families. The friction exploded in a short-lived revolt on Fat Thursday of 1511. From this moment, the Venetians had gradually begun to support the peasant classes, against the local nobility, until the formation of the so-called Contadinanza, a body that had fiscal and military functions. This last point, the formation of a peasant militia on a local basis, was a real challenge to the local nobility, which in its statutes prohibited the peasants to hunt. Venice proceeded resolutely to improve the living conditions of the peasants throughout the sixteenth century, to the detriment of the local nobility. In the century, because of the continuous epidemics, the worsening of land lease contracts, and the migration of peasants to Venice in search of opportunities, the countryside emptied.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Friuli was a desolate, ruined, and abandoned land.
According to Menocchio, the problems of his world were largely attributable to the Church, which owned everything and exploited the poor. To the hierarchical and liturgical vision of the Church, Menocchio contrasted an egalitarian religion, because the spirit of God is in everyone.
Menocchio seems to have been partially influenced by the Protestant Reformation, in particular by the Anabaptists, at least concerning the insistence on the simplicity of God’s word, the rejection of sacred images, ceremonies and sacraments, the denial of Christ’s divinity, and the adherence to a practical religiosity, centered on works, in contrast to ecclesiastical pomp.
Menocchio may have come into contact with a group of Anabaptists in Friuli, before their persecution, but certain elements in Menocchio’s thinking were incompatible with Anabaptist beliefs, including the heterogeneity of the texts Menocchio pointed to as the sources of his religious ideas, and his view of the pope, who was seen as a “good man,” and not as the incarnation of the Antichrist, as per the Anabaptists. Upon further investigation by the authorities into alleged connections with Lutheran or Protestant groups, it became clear that Menocchio had not come into contact with these groups. In fact, at one point the authorities realized that Menocchio probably drew on a substratum of peasant beliefs, never completely erased, much older than the Reformation itself, which had brought it to the surface and then swept it away.
The inquisitors were astonished that a simple miller could have formulated such different ideas. He was asked to reveal the names of his companions, but Menocchio replied that he had never found anyone with the same ideas as him. But according to the testimony of Don Ottavio Montereale, Menocchio had learned his heresies from Nicola, a master painter from Porcia. Menocchio then admitted that he had met him once. Nicola had spoken to him about a book, but then the conversation was diverted.
In the second trial, it emerged that Menocchio had formulated his idea that every man could save himself in his law, and therefore that a Turk was right to remain a Turk and not to convert to Christianity, drawing it from a novella of the Decameron, or the story of the three rings.
Finally, Menocchio admitted that it was Nicola de Melchiori, or Nicola da Porcia, who had lent him the Decameron. Nicola, it turned out, was considered a very heretical man, who one day had destroyed some sacred images inside a church, because “one should not put images in the church”.
According to Menocchio, Nicholas had another book, called Zampollo, the story of a jester who died and went to hell, where he continued to be a jester. This testimony was completely overlooked during the trial, but it indicated part of the origin of Menocchio’s ideas. It was from the book “Il Sogno dil Caravia”, where Zanpolo, a jester of a Venetian jeweler, Alessandro Caravia, comforts his master, discouraged by the injustices of the world. Zanpolo promises that he will try to appear to him after he dies. The poem describes the jeweler’s dream to which his jester friend recounts his journey to heaven, where he converses with St. Peter, and to hell, where he befriends the devil Farfarello, and then meets another famous jester, Domenego Taiacalze, who advises him of a stratagem to appear to Caravia that does not work. The jester is forgiven by the devil Farfarello who allows Zanpolo to appear to Caravia. Farfarello’s exhortation to tell the truth even in hell indicates one of the fundamental themes of the book, that is the polemic against hypocrisy, especially of the ecclesiastical authorities. In the text, Luther’s position is judged positively because he invokes a council to bring back doctrinal clarity by proposing a pure gospel, a religion reduced to an essential core, free of theological subtleties. In the poem are also condemned the laws and commandments of the Church, the denial of purgatory and therefore the usefulness of masses for the dead, the condemnation of the use of Latin by priests and friars, the rejection of luxury in churches.
In any case, this apparent analogy can simply be explained as the fruit of the same cultural environment that shared perplexities and doubts about the workings of the contemporary church. In the book, the condemnation of baptism, the exaltation of tolerance, the denial of the divinity of Christ, and other elements are completely absent.
But according to all the testimonies of the inhabitants of Montereale, Menocchio’s complex of ideas had been formed in a much earlier period. In addition, Menocchio seemed to resent the idea that his thoughts had been transmitted by Nicholas of Porcia. Some of Menocchio’s beliefs also depended on his interpretation of the texts with which he came into contact.
Menocchio, unlike other contemporary prophets or visionaries, did not claim to have received special revelations or illuminations, but instead attributed his views to the use of rational thought.
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Among the texts that have most influenced Menocchio, certainly, a special place is occupied by “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” attributed to a fictitious Sir John Mandeville. In a letter sent to the judges of the prison, he lists among the causes of his own mistakes the fact of having read Mandeville’s book, which is a compendium of travels based on medieval encyclopedias. The work had a great manuscript circulation and was later printed in Latin and the main European languages.
“The Travels” is divided into two parts. The first is an itinerary to the Holy Land. The second is a description of a journey to the East, to India, and to China. In the book, there is a description of the earthly paradise and the islands bordering the kingdom of the mythical Prester John. The first part presents first-hand accounts, the second part is largely fantastical.
Through the reading of the first part, the reader could acquire a series of detailed knowledge about the sacred places, the location of the main relics preserved, and the customs and habits of the inhabitants.
Menocchio was fascinated by the presentation of Muhammad’s doctrine, in particular the parts that coincided with his religious vision, which doubted the divine origin of Christ, and the crucifixion of Jesus, which according to Menocchio had never happened. According to Menocchio, Jesus had been replaced at the time of the crucifixion with Simon of Cyrene.
Menocchio was influenced by Mandeville’s descriptions of an island near India where he spoke of people worshipping the sun, fire, trees, and snakes. The diversity of beliefs and customs described in the book led Menocchio to question the basis of his beliefs and behaviors. As Carlo Ginzburg recalls, Menocchio was not a man of letters, only a self-taught miller who had always lived in and around Montereale. He knew neither Greek nor Latin and had read only a few random books. Menocchio also re-adapted the sources he had come into contact with to make them fit his worldview. Another element he could have drawn from reading “The Travels” was the use of the tool of rationality in interpreting the religious traditions of other peoples, that behind their apparent monstrosity or absurdity lay a rational core. Through the reading of this book, a simple narrative interwoven with fabulous elements, came an echo of religious tolerance that fed, along with other channels, a popular current in favor of tolerance, of which traces can be seen during the sixteenth century.
Another source was the medieval parable of the three rings, exposed in the third novella of the first day of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
“I have heard that there was once a wealthy man whose most prized possession was a precious ring. He bequeathed this ring to one of his sons, and by this sign, the latter was known as the head of family. Succeeding generations followed this tradition, with the principal heir always inheriting the cherished ring from his father. But, to make a long story short, the ring finally came into the possession of a man who had three sons, each the equal of the others in obedience, virtue, and worthiness. Unwilling to favor one son over the others, the father had a master artisan make two copies of the valued ring, and he bequeathed a ring to each son. Following the father’s death, each son laid claim to the deceased man’s title and estate, showing the inherited ring as proof. However, a careful inspection of the three rings could not reveal which of them was the authentic one, so the three sons’ claims remain unresolved. The same is true with the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The adherents of each religion consider themselves to be the legitimate heirs of God’s truth. But as was the case with the rings, their claims too remain unresolved.” (source)
The parable was censored by the counter-reformation because of the exaltation of tolerance. The three rings symbolized the three great Abrahamic religions, but Menocchio extended tolerance to heretics as well. For Menocchio, all religions were more or less equivalent, in the name of a simplified religion, devoid of dogmatic characterizations, echoing the faith of the “God of nature” that Mandeville had found among all populations, including the most remote ones. Menocchio rejected the idea of a God creator of the world. Mandeville, however, recognized that Christianity was superior to the partial truth revealed by other religions. Menocchio, however, once again surpassed the text he was referring to. He, through his key of interpretation, formulated analogies, reasoning, and ideas.
The analogy between the coagulation of cheese and the thickening of the nebula to form the world was not obvious to Menocchio. Without knowing it, by proposing the analogy of cheese and worms, Menocchio was echoing ancient and remote myths. In an Indian myth already mentioned by the Vedas, the origin of the cosmos is explained with the coagulation of the waters of the primordial sea. According to the Kalmyks, at the beginning of time, the waters of the sea were covered with a thick layer, like the one that forms on milk, from which sprang animals, men, and gods.
The coincidence is remarkable: it may be an echo that came to the time of Menocchio and was reused a century later by the English theologian Thomas Burnet, who tried to reconcile Scripture with the science of his time. This hypothesis is not to be excluded, especially considering that in Friuli in the same years, there was still a shamanic cult such as the one of the benandanti. And it is right in this middle ground, between the cults of peasant origin and the casual readings, that Menocchio perfects his cosmogony.
In Menocchio’s speeches, emerged a deep cultural system, a residue of oral culture, which had come to light because of the Reformation that had induced a simple miller to express his opinions on matters of faith, and the diffusion of the press that had given Menocchio the possibility of expressing his vision of the world. Thanks to the phrases he extrapolated from books he found the tools to formulate and defend his ideas.
Menocchio realized the power of the word, that is why he was hostile to the use of Latin in the court. For this reason, he felt the need to elevate himself from a cultural point of view, to be able to articulate his original worldview.
For example, the reading of the Bible gave him the linguistic and conceptual tools to elaborate and express his ideas, giving him terms such as “matter”, “nature”, “elements”, “substance”, reflections on the origin of evil, the influence of the stars and the relationship between the creator and the creatures that populate the earth.
Moreover, Menocchio, carried away by his boundless intellectual curiosity, did not let himself be discouraged by the most complicated passages, but on the contrary, they served him to elevate himself and to elaborate his thoughts.
With a terminology imbued with Christianity, neo-Platonism and scholastic philosophy, Menocchio sought to express the elementary, instinctive materialism of generations and generations of peasants.”
According to Menocchio God is a father, who loves all his children, whether they are Turks, Jews, or Christians, and as a father, he doesn’t even care if his children curse him, that’s why heresies and blasphemies have no value, they hurt only the one who expresses them and not the other. That is why it is more important to love one’s neighbor than God himself. In his literal worldview, God is like a lord, far from the lives of his children. A lord who does not work, since some work for him, namely the pope and the holy spirit who elected four captains. The ministers of God, like peasants servants of a feudal master, take care of the tiring tasks. God, according to Menocchio, has the power to make the world by himself, but his power consists mainly in working through his workers.
Menocchio refused to see in man an immaterial principle, the soul, distinct from the body, and for this reason he had identified the man with the world, and the world with god. Once a man is dead, the soul also dies. Incited by the inquisitors, Menocchio explained that the soul is the set of operations of the mind and perishes with the body. Menocchio elaborates abstruse and complicated anthropology. Menocchio identified seven souls (intellect, memory, will, thought, belief, faith, and hope). Moreover, all men have two spirits, a shining one that is separated from man and that at death returns to God, and a dark one, represented by temptation. Man, therefore, according to Menocchio is composed of seven souls, two spirits while the body is composed of four elements.
The distinction between the mortal soul and immortal spirit probably came through a tortuous way that started from the Averroistic circles of the nearby University of Padua, according to which with the death of the body, the individual soul, distinct from the active intellect postulated by Averroè, perishes. Re-elaborated in a religious key, the Franciscan Girolamo Galateo argued that the souls of the blessed after death sleep until the Day of Judgment (the sleep of souls). The Soul dies with the death of the body, while the Animus is destined to rise at the end of time.
This doctrine was later absorbed and reworked by the Anabaptists of Veneto. The parish priest of Polcenigo, Giovan Daniele Melchiori, a childhood friend of Menocchio, was in turn subjected to the judgment of the court of the Inquisition and recognized as slightly suspected of heresy. According to the testimonies, Melchiori would have said that “one goes to heaven only on the day of Judgement”. During the trial, Melchiori denied having uttered such words, but he admitted to having spoken about the difference between corporal and spiritual death based on what he had read in a book by a priest from Fano, entitled “Discorsi Proverbiali”.
The immaterial spirit, at death, therefore, would have arrived in a sort of fabulous paradise, where the seven souls were useless, the matter became docile and transparent. The peasant paradise of Menocchio in some ways echoes the vision of the paradise of Muhammad, of which he had read a description in the book of Mandeville.
The first trial
On May 17, 1584, the inquisitors issued their sentence, which was four or five times longer than ordinary sentences, because they felt the need to dismantle Menocchio’s theses. According to the inquisitors, Menocchio’s dangerous ideas had to be kept as far away as possible from the peasants and artisans of Montereale.
Menocchio was condemned to publicly abjure every heresy, to wear forever a robe with a cross as a sign of penitence, to spend the rest of his life in prison, at the expense of his children.
For almost two years Menocchio remained in prison. In 1586 his sons presented a plea, written by Menocchio himself, to the bishop Matteo Sanudo and the inquisitor of Aquileia and Concordia, the Evangelist Peleo. The two saw the signs of authentic conversion and for this reason, they commuted the sentence. Menocchio was released from prison and was ordered not to leave Montereale for the rest of his life. He was forbidden to express his bad opinions, he had to go to confession regularly, and wear the crusade suit over his clothes, a sign of his infamy. Menocchio returned to Montereale, tired and distraught.
Menocchio resumed his place in the community and was again appointed chamberlain of the church of Santa Maria di Montereale, whose new parish priest was Giovan Daniele Melchiori, who, as we have seen, had also had to deal with the Inquisition.
Menocchio returned to be an active and respected member of the community holding some official positions. A few years later, however, after the death of his son Ziannuto who supported him, Menocchio tried to provide for himself by doing some jobs such as school teacher or guitar player at parties. At this point, it became fundamental to be able to get rid of the crusade robe that he was forced to wear all the time and the prohibition to leave Montereale. For this reason in 1597 he went to Udine and asked the new inquisitor to be dispensed from both obligations. The inquisitor allowed him to travel freely, but not to get rid of the annoying mark of infamy.
The second trial
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Menocchio did not know, however, that since the year before the Holy Office had begun to investigate him again. In the carnival of the previous year, he had gone to Udine with the permission of the inquisitor. In the square, he had met an acquaintance of his, a violinist named Lunardo Simon. The two of them started talking and afterward, Lunardo told the inquisitor’s vicar about the conversation he had with Menocchio. Menocchio had asked him if he intended to become a monk. He told him that it was a foolish decision, that God did not want people to know some secrets, that if he had been a Turk he would not have wanted to become a Christian, that he did not believe if he did not see, that the gospel is only the work of writers, that Christ was a man, etc. Menocchio therefore, despite the abjuration and the prison had returned to support the old ideas. However, the complaint was initially dropped and then recovered two years later, in 1598.
It was discovered that don Odorico Vorai, the author of the first denunciation, had been persecuted by Menocchio’s relatives and had been driven out of Montereale. As far as Menocchio was concerned, it was clear that he had maintained the same opinions that had led to his condemnation. The inquisitor went to Montereale and questioned the parish priest, Don Giovanni Daniele Melchiori, who reported that Menocchio had stopped wearing the crusade robe, went out of the village boundaries, but that he went to confession regularly. Another witness confirmed that Menocchio behaved as a good Christian, but every time he was stimulated, he felt the need to give his opinion on everything. Menocchio had not started preaching his ideas again, but he had isolated himself inwardly, although he did not give up the will to express himself. In any case, the inquisition interrupted the investigations, perhaps because after all the miller had been reduced to silence and no longer represented a danger to the faith of the villagers.
The third trial and the condemnation
A few months later, however, the inquisitor received another complaint against Menocchio. Seven or eight years earlier, an innkeeper from Aviano, Michele del Turco, had heard Menocchio exclaim that “if Christ had been God, he would have been a … to let himself be put on the Cross”. Investigating, countless blasphemies against the virginity of the Madonna and his provocative questions (“What do you think God is?” he asked “God is nothing but air”) came to light. He instilled doubts instilled (“the inquisitors do not want us to know what they know”) and challenged the inquisitors to a theological dispute.
All this must have seemed too much for the inquisitors, who had Menocchio arrested towards the end of June 1599. On July 12, he was interrogated by Gerolamo Asteo, by the vicar of the bishop of Condordia, Valerio Trapola and by the podestà of the place, Pietro Zane.
Menocchio was now sixty-seven years old and a tired elder man. Menocchio initially explained that he had fulfilled the imposed penances. But in the end, he was unable to lie when asked if he still had doubts about the matters for which he had been condemned. Once again, pressed by the inquisitor, Menocchio asked why on earth some gospels should be considered of divine origin, while others are considered man-made, such as the apocryphal gospels. It appeared obvious to the inquisitor that for all those years Menocchio had maintained his old ideas. Menocchio, abandoning all hesitation, began again to illustrate his theological vision, enriching it with some other elements: the Father was air, the Son was earth, the Holy Spirit was water, while fire represented God, the primordial element, unconsciously echoing the thought of the ancient Greek philosophers. All reality according to him was permeated by it. Although he had embedded in his vision the trinity, what emerged was that according to Menocchio God is one, and he is the world. The vision of tolerance had also been modified over the years. According to Menocchio, the various churches were equivalent as realities related to the social context. One had to follow them by tradition. However, this adherence to the traditional religion was only external. Menocchio went to mass and confessed, but inside he continued to brood over his old thoughts.
In the first trial, Menocchio had never recalled supernatural experiences. Now he vaguely alluded to mystical experiences, but he disavowed them as “vanities” or “dreams”. Menocchio involuntarily or indirectly confirmed that he had not changed his mind, even if he justified himself by saying that he had been led into temptation by some demon. Menocchio was old and disheartened, he felt a burden for his family, a shame for his country, and was desperately trying to be reintegrated within his social context. The desire to investigate “high things”, however, filled him with anguish and made him feel guilty before the world.
On August 2, the congregation of the Holy Office met and Menocchio has unanimously decreed a recidivist. The trial was over and Menocchio was subjected to torture to extract the names of his accomplices. Menocchio did not name anyone. With his silence, Menocchio wanted to emphasize that his thoughts had not been influenced by anyone and that they were the result of his reasoning and the reading of his books. In his tenacious persistence, one can glimpse the traces of a pre-Christian peasant religion, intolerant of dogmas and ceremonies, tied to the rhythms of nature. The Christian religion was grafted onto this cultural substratum in the simplest form possible.
Menocchio was sentenced to death, also due to the direct intervention of the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome, which insisted on capital punishment, despite a belated sense of clemency on the part of the inquisitor from Friuli. In the same months in Rome, the trial against Giordano Bruno was being concluded. The same Pope Clement VIII demanded his death. Shortly after Menocchio was killed.
On July 6, 1601, a man, Donato Serotino told the inquisitor of Friuli that he had learned from a hostess that a man of the area, named Marcato or Marco believed that “when the body dies, the soul dies too” …
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Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it, China-underground.com, Weirditaly.com and RetroFuturista.com.