Certain watershed moments in our lives happen by accident, at least on the surface.
While attending university in Siena, it happened at one point that some of the lectures in the course of study were held not on the premises of my faculty, but located in the classrooms of theAccademia dei Fisiocritici, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Italy.
So one day I was in class in there, and to dilute the inhuman torment (no one should be subjected, without prior informed consent, to a general linguistics class) I got up to look for a bathroom. I asked the janitor how to get there, and he pointed to a door specifying that I had to go through the whole room because the restrooms were at the back.
When I entered, the shutters at the windows were ajar, and it took me a moment to adjust my eyes to the dimness. I finally distinguished, half a meter away from me, a strange silhouette… I focused with difficulty, and what I saw was this:
My memory is usually ragged and lazy, but that shock I remember as if it were a thing of today: the rush of adrenaline left me shaky. I found myself surrounded by other teratological specimens, although I didn’t even know the term at the time: in addition to the Siamese calf taxidermy, there were skeletons of thoracopagus lambs, malformed fetuses and human preparations.
I could have looked for an escape route, pulled straight for the restrooms cursing the janitor who had not warned me what I would be facing; instead, something clicked. I stood paralyzed for I don’t know how long, then the dismay faded, giving way to the most all-encompassing wonder I had ever felt. Precipitated in a paradoxical state, at once hypnotic and euphoric, I forgot about the bathroom, about class.
I did not leave that room until, an hour later, a fellow student came looking for me. Leaving the Academy, intoxicated and inebriated, I knew that moment would define at least in part all the rest of my life.
Why was that experience such an epiphany?
There was a hallucinatory quality to those deformed bodies that made me feel like a lost child, or at least get back in touch with a childlike trait that tends to be blunted by time: the inability to distinguish sharply between dream and reality.
(I wrote “inability to distinguish,” instead it would be better to say: the ability not to distinguish. But we’ll get to that.)
Now that I have been involved for many years precisely with anatomical or natural history museums, and their relationship to the uncanny, I understand well why that moment was so foundational for me. Without that surprise, that unexpected and cruel thrill, that cutaneous horripilation, that primal trauma, I would not have arrived at the approach that I believe informs much of my work: that of valuing the “Fantastic in science,” a concept around which I have long orbited, though without defining it explicitly until now.
Scientific and fantasy fiction are contradictory only in appearance, just as specious is the opposition between the Fantastic and Realism. Whether we are talking about film, literature or art, a double misunderstanding has plagued these disciplines for quite a while: on the one hand, Realism is merely a mode of exposition, laden with conscious choices and omissions — thus a clever pretense of verisimilitude. On the other, under the allegorical veneer, any fantastic narrative is a meditation (more or less conscious) on the reality of its own time.
In other words: realism is always a fable in disguise, while a fantastic narrative is always about concrete and current concerns.
The great difference between the two expressions is similar to what in music is called timbre; different are the instruments that play it, different are the filters, effects, distortions, and vibrations that are produced, but the note may well be the same.
In the artistic-literary sphere, therefore, such a dialectic never goes beyond the epidermis of the story, but I am convinced that on serious examination it does not hold between scientific language and the fantastic dimension either. While we are accustomed to recognizing the scientific themes that sometimes populate art or fantastic literature (think of Frankenstein), at first glance the presence of fantastic elements that run through scientific narratives — which are nothing more than a realist register taken to extremes — is less obvious.
It is the study of anatomy, human and animal, that in my eyes encapsulates more than other disciplines a propensity for the Marvelous.
On the one hand it is infused with all the epic of the heroes of science, the pioneering cartography of the body as a virgin continent to be explored, the esoteric toponymy and nomenclature; but the medical rhetoric of case reports — despite having developed a predilection for aseptic language honed over the centuries — is still descended from the accounts of prodigies and monstrous births of the Sixteenth Century. It is not uncommon to encounter medical papers that resemble veritable short stories.
Pietro da Cortona, Tabulae anatomicae, 1741
On the other hand, I have always been fascinated by anatomical plates (with their unintentional surrealism) and especially by the spectacular aspect of some museum preparations — such as those that treacherously stood before me at the Accademia dei Fisiocritici.
Precisely in the monstrous preparations, but also in certain dissections that unfold the body in unexpected visual distortions, there is an element of transfiguration of matter that I think is necessary for one to be able to speak properly of the Fantastic.
Honoré Fragonard, Écorché of Horse and Rider (1771), Fragonard Museum, Paris.
12-part human skull section, preparation by Ryan Matthew Cohn.
In short: If I were asked to name a place that perfectly represents my idea of the Fantastic, I would not think of any enchanted glade inhabited by fairies and goblins, nor of a crumbling mansion haunted by some evanescent ghost. Nor would I address distant hypothetical planets populated by inconceivable life forms.
I would direct the interlocutor to an anatomy museum.
Prepared in liquid twins, MUSA, Naples.
Tracing the fantastic in science, then, has broader and deeper repercussions. It means reconsidering the distance between mathematical-scientific and artistic-humanistic disciplines.
There is a widespread idea that the artist is predominantly irrational and emotional, but anyone who has ventured to produce any form of art knows very well that it is a work of ingenuity considered as an inseparable whole: it is necessary to guarantee space for the unknown to intervene in order to harmonize and elaborate it thanks to the control that technique guarantees.
On the other hand, the researcher or scientist proceeds in a kindred way — in spite of the different timbre, semiotic register, and tools — that is, in perennial balance between the describable and the indescribable, putting their faculties to good use indiscriminately, tuning the scruple of reasoning with those vast unfathomable areas from which intuition and unexpected illuminations spring.
“Eureka!” Archimedes in the bath, 16th-century woodcut.
No human quest, in other words, is wholly rational or irrational: for we only move in an attempt to untangle the thicket of symbols we have inherited or created ourselves, and to overcome them. The poet and the scientist who intend to reach some truth must strain in a constant effort against the traps of language, of categories, of preconceptions.
In this, as I said, the child’s ability not to make big distinctions between dream and reality would be a discipline to cultivate since, when needed, it allows us to place ourselves beyond traditional separations.
It is useful to access that privileged vantage point from time to time, because from there the heterogeneous stimuli that animate our thinking are no longer judged a priori: and the multiple currents, coming from all directions, that churn and eddy under our keel, are still the same ocean.
(This post is dedicated to that janitor who at the time did not warn me of what I was getting into. I don’t know his name, but he was infinitely more important to my education than the linguistics professor.)
I am sure we all remember vividly the first sex scene we saw in a movie that really struck our imagination. In my case the film in question was Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman, and more precisely the carnal congress which happens about fifteen minutes into the film. A sequence that deeply troubled me, leaving me in a mixture of attraction and repulsion, without my being able to understand why.
Here Uther Pendragon, who thanks to Merlin’s spell has assumed the appearance of Duke Gorlois, violently possesses the duke’s wife, Igraine (from this fleeting relationship extorted with deception King Arthur will be born). The montage sequence shows this intercourse obtained by deception alernated with the simultaneous death of the true duke on the battlefield: Eros and Thanatos.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
The element that struck me most was a detail with a very powerful visual impact: in the scene Uther, falling prey to erotic fury, does not bother to take off his armor and rushes on the woman who, believing him to be her husband, gives in to his impetus. Leaving aside the dubious realism of the scene (would it really be possible to do certain things while wearing an armor?), it was the contrast – the contact – between the shiny steel and the white female skin that was indelibly engraved in my imagination. I doubt it is a coincidence that, many years later, my graduation thesis ended up focusing on Crash by Cronenberg, another film in which flesh and metal clash and merge, thanks to the car accident, in a perverse erotic dimension.
When I saw Excalibur for the first time I could not know, but the iconography of a knight in armor facing a naked woman is a recurring theme in the history of art – “too frequent, too varied, too insistent to be judged random”, as noted by Roger Caillois in Au cœur du fantastique (1965).
The motif is connected to the broader topos of the clothed male figure vs. an undressed female figure: many nineteenth-century paintings are based on this one-sided nudity, in particular the representations of harems or slave markets which were very fashionable among Orientalist painters, but also famous paintings like Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
But, as we shall see, in the case of the fully-armored knight a much more interesting level of ambiguity can be identified.
Giuseppe Ferrauto states that there are “a whole kind of depictions of beautiful, naked and chained female prisoners, destined for the more or less openly morbid tastes of gentlemen of the past. […] Ariosto described Angelica chained to the rock of Ebuda, about to be the victim of a sea monster. Many took possession of this scene, from Ingres to Doré, who used it for his illustrations for Orlando furioso, up to Polish artist Chodowiecki, who also made a series of engravings, again for Orlando furioso , in 1772, to end up in the folklore scenes of Sicilian carts’ painted sides.” (Arcana, vol. II, Sugar 1969)
Painters looking for contexts that lend themselves to this type of representation obviously found a perfect anecdote in the episode of Angelica and Ruggero (or in the similar classic myth of Andromeda freed by Perseus). One of the most famous examples is the aforementioned Ruggero Freeing Angelica by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1819), an oil painting that at the time caused a scandal for its representation of female nudity.
Matthias Gerung, Allegory of Love (Amor omnia vincit), 1535
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus Freeing Andromeda, 1620
Pieter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda, 1640
But there were illustrious and varied precedents. In 1530 Lucas Cranach had chosen the Judgment of Paris in order to show the three naked goddesses in front of the Trojan prince, while Tintoretto associated the theme with the liberation of Arsinoe, where the rescue set at the Lighthouse of Alexandria becomes the occasion for showing the armor in contact with bare skin; also worth noting is the sensual detail of the chain which slides sinuously over the queen’s private parts. As Mario Praz summarized well, “the contact of naked limbs with the chains and the steel of the armor seems to have the precise purpose of exciting special senses” (Erotismo in arte e letteratura, in I problemi di Ulisse, 1970).
Lucas Cranach The Elder, The Judgement of Paris, ca. 1528
Jacopo Tintoretto, The Liberation of Arsinoe, ca. 1556
Francesco Montelatici a.k.a. Cecco Bravo, Ruggero and Angelica, 1660
Michaelis Majeri, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum, 1687
“All this – wrote Caillois – undoubtedly gives rise to an emotion which is in a certain sense natural, inevitable, and does not owe its effectiveness to the illustrated anecdote. André Pieyre de Mandiargues, describing Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara […], reports that licentious tournaments were held in the hall on the first floor in which naked girls contended with knights in arms. If the rumor is true, the strange game convinces me only of the fact that the power of suggestion of that image is even greater than I imagined. If it is unfounded, the fact that it was taken up by Mandiargues convinces me almost as much of the secret and persistent virulence of that fantasy.”
William Etty, Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret, ca. 1833
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1863
Joseph Paul Blanc, The Liberation – Ruggero and Angelica, 1876
In time the motif no longer needed much historical anecdotes to lean on. Millais’s Knight Errant does not refer to any precise mythological or literary episode – if not, perhaps, to John Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) – as it will happen with other variations on the theme by the Pre-Raphaelites.
John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1870
Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfulled, 1885
Charles Napier Kennedy, Perseus and Andromeda, 1890
Arthur Hacker, The Temptation of Sir Percival, ca. 1894
One of the most interesting declinations is undoubtedly the one chosen by Delacroix in 1852, in which the knight-errant is actually a woman: it is Marfisa, once again a character drawn from Ariosto.
It is worth summing up the background story of this scene: the warrior-woman on her steed is giving a passage across the river to the witch Gabrina, when they meet the knight Pinabello and her beautiful but insolent lover, who laughs at the old woman. Determined to avenge this offense, Marfisa defeats the knight in a duel and forces Pinabello’s mistress to strip off her rich garments and give them to her old woman.
In stripping the knight’s cheeky lover, Marfisa seems to parody the very artistic motif we are talking about. In fact unlike all the other armored knights we’ve seen so far, who fall at the feet of the girl in déshabillé, here the intrepid warrior, being a woman, does not let herself be duped: to the pretty girl (to paint which, according to Armando Sodano, Delacroix had rediscovered “the lyricism of odalisques of his youth”) Marfisa prefers the old hag she carries on her steed. Who certainly isn’t beautiful, but intelligent.
An ironic punishment for female vanity that comes from a female in armor, one that I find amusing to read in a metanarrative sense: “if you are a woman who cannot go beyond appearances”, Marfisa seems to warn, “then you deserve to be naked , as happens to all the other maidens in this very type of paintings!”
Eugène Delacroix, Marfisa, 1852
Finally, let me go back to Excalibur. Over the years I have often found myself wondering what was special about that scene, and why did it end up being engraved so strongly in my imagination.
Uther’s passion is cruel, compelling, violent. He encompasses all the arrogance of the well-known masculinity centered on possession: a vision made of fury, of rights arrogated and obtained even by deception, a vision in which the longed-for woman must be taken by force. It could be said that the character of Uther, who even recurs to a magic spell in order to satisfy his desires, is “blinded by passion”: a phrase that is sometimes used even today as an extenuating circumstance for rapes and femicides. This is why it is a dark, disturbing sex scene; it is no coincidence that it is interpolated by Boorman with the images of the massacre on the battlefield and with the shots of the innocent child (Morgana) who witnesses this furious embrace, while the soundtrack by Trevor Jones, through pulsating strings and choirs of wavering voices, creates a surreal and deadly atmosphere.
Excalibur (1981) by John Boorman
Yet Igraine does not shy away from aggression: perhaps because she truly believes that he is her husband – or perhaps because there is a subtle complacency in causing such a fury in any lover. Which of the two is dominant, the knight who attacks, or the female who has the power to make him fall prey to passion?
The scene is therefore suspended, as its power relationship is ambiguous. This ambiguity is also intrinsic to the artistic theme we have talked about. On the one hand, the artists tend to highlight the contrast between feminine weakness and fragility, as symbolized by the tempting softness of naked flesh, and strong masculinity as signified by the hard appearance of metal. On the other hand, however, the very armor that should be a symbol of might and virility almost seems like a shell that encloses and constrains all impulses.
John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893
John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, ca. 1905
Such a representation inevitably raises questions: is the knight’s “macho” allure amplified by this encounter with a beautiful lady in Evitic costume, or does he on the contrary appear to be mocked? After being victorious in countless battles, isn’t the warrior conquered by the irresistible seduction of women? Is his armor a symbol of power or rather impotence (as it prevents intercourse)? Is the naked woman, in all her soft and helpless charm, really a compliant prey or is she the one who bewitches and leads the game?
Rose O’Neill, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1905
The opposition between these two extremes (manhood enclosed in war vestments, and naked seductive femininity) is the embodiment of a dialectic between the sexes that has been handed down for a very long time as if it were an immutable truth. Yet the dynamics of the relations of power, domination and submission, are never as univocal as they might seem; the mechanism is delicate, and the opposing components at its core are in constant tension towards overturning one another.
The strength of the image of the knight and the naked woman lies precisely in the fact that, at a deep level, its balance remains undecidable.
Vereker Monteith Hamilton (1856 – 1931), The Rescue
Today I’d like to introduce you to one truly extraordinary project, in which I am honored to have participated. This is Totentanz, created by engraver and paper maker Andrea De Simeis.
One of the depictions of death that, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, enjoyed greater fortune is the so-called Triumph of Death.
I talked about it on YouTube in my video Dancing with death: the Black Queen who, armed with a scythe, crushes everyone under the wheels of her chariot – peasants, popes, rulers – was not just a pictorial representation, but a concrete part of the festivities of Carnival. In fact, the Triumph also paraded among the carnival floats, surrounded by people masked as skeletons who mocked the spectators by dancing and singing poems centered on memento mori.
This is the tradition that Andrea De Simeis drew on to invent his modern Triumph of Death, an actual musical chariot that will parade across Italy and, virus permitting, across Europe, bringing joy and poetry but at the same time reminding us of our finiteness.
Totentanz (German for “danse macabre”) is a large wooden music box on wheels; at the turn of the crank, the machine plays a dies irae and three cylinders start turning, thus rotating eighteen original illustrations.
The music box, at the end of its delicate motif, draws a booklet for its operator: an illustrated plaquette with a short dialogue, a maxim, an aphorism, a poem.
Each precious booklet is produced in only eleven copies; the illustrations and texts are printed on hand-laid paper in pure cotton cellulose, hemp and spontaneous fig from the Mediterranean vegetation.
The Italian authors who accepted the invitation to write these short texts are many and prestigious; you can discover some of them on the Facebook page of the project.
Among these, I too tried my hand at a poem to accompany the illustration entitled “The Hanged Man”. It is my small tribute to François Villon and his Ballade des pendus.
Clicca per ingrandire
The proceeds from these publications will fund the Totentanz music box’s trip from city to city, accompanied at each stage by performances by a musician or actor who will interpret the theme of the memento mori. Totentanz‘s initiatives are not for profit, but only serve to finance this tour.
If the initiative fascinates you, you can support it in many ways.
In the promotional video below you can see the fantastic machine in action; below is a 3D rendering by visual artist Giacomo Merchich.
In episode 8 of the Bizzarro Bazar web series, I showed a very special piece from my curio collection: a 17th-century wax crucifix, whose abdomen is equipped with a small door revealing the internal organs of Jesus.
In presenting it I used the most widespread definition for this kind of artifacts, namely that of “anatomical Christ”. I briefly summarized its function by saying that the allegorical intent was to demonstrate the humanity of the Redeemer right down to his bowels.
Some time before recording that episode, however, I had been contacted by art historian Teodoro De Giorgio, who was conducting the first accurate census of all existing crucifixes of this kind. During our meeting he had examined my ceroplastic specimen, kindly promising to let me know when his study was published.
His research finally appeared in August on the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, one of the oldest and most prestigious journals of international art history. The essay’s translated title reads: “The Origins of the Iconography in Visceribus Christi. From medieval influences of cordial devotion to the modern representation of the bowels of Christ“.
And here is the surprise: the fascinating analysis that Prof. De Giorgio has conducted refuses both the denomination of “anatomical Christ” and the function of the object as I exposed it, based on the few existing studies.
Instead, his essay reveals how these wax crucifixes were invested with a much deeper symbolic and theological value, which I wish to summarize here. (Note: although the paper is accompanied by a generous photographic apparatus, out of respect for the owners’ image rights I will only include in this article photos of my crucifix.)
De Giorgio’s study includes and minutely describes the few existing crucifixes we know of: nineteen specimens in all, produced between the 17th and 19th centuries in southern Italy, most likely in Sicilian wax-making workshops.
To understand the complex stratification of meaning that links the image of Christ with his bowels exposed to the concept of divine mercy, the author first examines the biblical anthology. Here we discover that
in the Holy Scriptures the bowels are a powerful verbal image with a double meaning: figurative and real. The same term, depending on the context and the dialogic referent, can qualify both divine infinity and human finiteness. […] in the Septuagint, which is largely faithful to the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament, there is a substantial semantic homology between the Greek terms σπλάγχνα (viscera), καρδία (heart) and κοιλία (belly). At the core of this equivalence lies the biblical conception of mercy: “to feel mercy” is to be compassionate “down to one’s bowels” […] In Semitic languages, particularly in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, divine mercy shows not only a visceral significance, but also — and above all — a uterine value.
Through various examples from the Old and New Testament, De Giorgio shows this “visceral” mercy was thought to be a prerogative of both God and Christ, and how the womb was identified from time to time as a seat of divine compassion or as a metaphorical uterus representing God’s maternal care towards Israel. The heart and bowels – of God, of Christ – were therefore intended as a fountain of mercy quenching the believer’s thirst, a divine spring of love.
In the tradition of the Latin Church an expression marks the mercy of Christ: in visceribus Christi [“in the viscera of Christ”]. With this Latin formula, […] the Christian implored Jesus Christ in order to obtain graces through his divine mercy. Praying in visceribus Christi meant weaving a privileged spiritual relationship with the Savior in the hope of moving his bowels of mercy, which he had fully manifested on the cross.
The Jesuits were among the first congregations to join the new cult, and the practice of directing the prayers to the Sacred Heart and to the bowels of Christ, and the author attibutes these particular wax crucifixes with abdominal flaps to the Society of Jesus. It was precisely in the 16th-17th century that the need to identify an adequate iconography for worship became urgent.
If the mercy of God revealed itself in all its magnificence in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, who — as attested by the Gospels — harbored ‘visceral compassion’ towards humanity, there were very specific reasons for contemplating the Savior’s innards and in the 17th century, along with the growing freedom of representations of the Sacred Heart and a parallel progress in anatomical and physiological knowledge, the time was ripe to do so by making use of a specific iconography.
Pompeo Batoni, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1767), Chiesa del Gesù, Roma.
Yet the task did not go without dangers:
In European spiritual circles, especially those related to confraternity associations, other images had to circulate unofficially and be reserved for personal devotion or that of small groups of followers […]. The iconography in question must have seen the light in this climate of emotional and passionate popular fervor, which manifested itslef in many pious practices, and at the same time one of rational dissent of a part of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy, which saw in the adoration of the fleshy heart of Christ the seeds of the Arian heresy.
Far from being mere anatomical representations aimed at showing the Savior’s human suffering, the crucifixes had instead a much more important function, namely
to invite devotees, in the so-called ‘strong times’ (such as the Lenten season or during Holy Week, and in particular in the Easter Triduum or, even more, on Good Friday) or in times of need, to contemplate the bowels of mercy of the Savior by opening the appropriate door. Right there to His bowels prayers and supplications had to be addressed, right there the rite of the faithful kiss had to be carried out, and right there patches and cotton wool had to be placed, according to the customs of the time, to be kept as real contact relics. The iconography in question, which we can call in visceribus Christi, could only be formulated in the precise devotional context of the Jesuit society, linked to the sphere of brotherhoods. That was the appropriate place in which the veneration of the sacred bowels of Christ could be carried out, as such an explicit vision could cause the indignation of many, including ecclesiastics who were less theologically knowledgeable than the Jesuits or who were, more simply, weak-stomached. The choice of a small format, on the other hand, is understandable precisely because of the limited devotional scope of these waxworks, which were reserved for small groups of people or for private worship.
De Giorgio states that these crucifixes were not simply an “Ecce homo anatomicus“, but rather an instrument for directing prayers to the very source of divine mercy.
I for my part can add that they appeared in a period, the Renaissance, in which iconography was often aimed at reviving the mystery of the incarnation and the humanity of Jesus by means of a dramtic realism, for example in the so-called ostentatio genitalium, the representation of the genitals of Christ (as a child or on the cross).
Two wooden crucifixes attributed to Michelangelo (Cucifix of Santo Spirito and Crucifix Gallino).
Showing the sacrificed body of Christ in all its fragile nudity had the purpose of favoring the believers’ identification and imitatio of Christ, as devotees were invited to “nakedly follow the naked Christ“. And what nakedness can be more extreme than the anatomical disclosure?
On the other hand, as Leo Steinberg showed in his classic essay on the sexuality of Christ, this was also a way for artsits to find a theological foundation and justification for the figurative realism advocated by the Renaissance.
Thus, thanks to De Giorgio’s contribution, we discover that wax crucifixes in visceribus Christi hid a very dense symbolic meaning. Sacred accessories of a cult suspected of heresy and not yet endorsed by the hierarchies of the Church (the adoration of the Sacred Heart will be officially allowed only in 1765), these were secret objects of devotion and contemplation.
And they remain a particularly touching testimony of the perhaps desperate attempt to move to compassion — down to the “bowels” — that God who too often seems willing to abandon man to his own destiny.
All quotations (translated by me) are taken from Teodoro De Giorgio, “L’origine dell’iconografia in visceribus Christi. Dai prodromi medievali della devozione cordicolare alla rappresentazione moderna delle viscere di Cristo”, in «Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz», LXI, 2019, 1, pp. 74-103. The magazine can be purchased by contacting the Centro Di publishing house, at this link.
On these pages I have always given ample space to the visual arts, and even those who seldom check out my blog know quite well what my tastes are in the field: I prefer a type of art (preferably figurative, but not only) that is somehow cruel towards the observer.
I’m not talking about the fake and superficial provocations of shock art; if you’re looking to get traumatized, there’s plenty of websites offering far more extreme images than the ones you get to see in a gallery. I’m thinking of that need to be shaken and intimately touched by an artwork, of some kind of Artaudian cruelty: but to reach that kind of emotional charge, the artist must have a very refined preparation and sensitivity.
If in the past years I presented here, from time to time, some artists that really had me impressed, now there is a big news.
From this year Bizzarro Bazar will actually take an active part in promoting “strange, macabre and wonderful” art!
Together with curator Eliana Urbano Raimondi, I founded L’Arca degli Esposti, an artistic and cultural association based in Palermo.
L’Arca degli Esposti (which means “The Ark of the Exposed”) has the mission to give visibility to those artists who are eccentric and “heretical” with respect to the art system.
I quote from the presentation on our website:
The “exposed” or “exhibited”, therefore, are the artists promoted by the association by virtue of their stylistic independence and the courageous and unique iconography they put forth. Exposed, as selected for the exhibitions organized by the association; exposed as the illegitimate infants who once were abandoned on foundling wheels; exposed because they have the audacity to express a heterodox position with respect to market trends.
With this almost adoptive intent, L’Arca degli Esposti declares its vocation to the elitist custody of the “mirabilia”: the same one that gave life to ancient wunderkammern — symbolized in our logo by the nautilus, a sea creature whose shell is based on the infinite wheel spiral of golden growth, traveling through the waters like a vessel to new worlds.
What these three extraordinary contemporary artists have in common is a dreamlike transfiguration of the human figure; for this reason we chose to summon as our tutelary deity Goddess Circe and her hypnagogic visions, which faded and transcended the nature of the body.
Here are some examples of their production:
Together with Eliana Urbano Raimondi — to whose brilliant work goes most of the credit for this dream come true — we are already preparing many other exhibitions, conferences and seminars focused on weird, dark and alternative culture; we are also trying to bring some really great artists to Italy for the first time, and I must say that I’m beyond excited… but I shall keep you posted.
For the moment I invite you to follow the initiatives of the Arca on the association’s website, on our Facebook page and Instagram; and, if you happen to be around, I look forward to see you on these first two, fantastic dates!
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible. With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).
Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)
Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.
The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.
The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.
Detail of the book.
Detail of tendons.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)
Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
Detail of Rachel Ruysch.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)
Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)
Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)
Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
One of the most interesting variations was realized by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram: commissioned by the Edinburgh Medical School and featuring contemporary women medical students, it was designed to celebrate the “Edinburgh Seven“, the first group of female students enrolled in a British university in 1869, who were allowed to study medicine but not to graduate.
Laurence Winram (2020)
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
The ladies and gentlemen you see above are practicing the sexual roleplay called pony play, in which one of the two participants takes on the role of the horse and the other of the jockey. This is a quirky niche within the wider field of dom/sub relationships, yet according to the alternative sexuality expert Ayzad
aficionados can reach impressive levels of specialization: there are those who prefer working on posture and those who organize real races on the track, some live it as a sexual variant while others tend to focus on the psychological experience. Ponygirls often report loving this game because it allows them to regress to a primordial perception of the world, in which every feeling is experienced with greater intensity: many describe reverting to their usual “human condition” as harsh and unpleasant. Although there are no precise figures, it is believed that pony play is actively practiced by no more than 2,000 people worldwide, yet this fantasy is appreciated by a far greater number of sympathizers.
But few people know that this erotic mis-en-scene has an illustrious forerunner: the first unwilling ponyboy in history was none other than the greatest philosopher of ancient times1, Aristotle!
(Well, not really. But what is reality, dear Aristotle?)
At the beginning of the 1200s, in fact, a curious legend began to circulate: the story featured Aristotle secretly falling in love with Phyllis, wife of Alexander the Macedonian (who was a pupil of the great philosopher) .
Phyllis, a beautiful and shrewd woman, decided to exploit Aristotle’s infatuation to teach a lesson to her husband, who was neglecting her by spending whole days with his mentor. So she told Aristotle that she would grant him her favors if he agreed to let her ride on his back. Blinded by passion, the philosopher accepted and Phyllis arranged for Alexander the Great to witness, unseen, this comic and humiliating scene.
The story, mentioned for the first time in a sermon by Jacques de Vitry, became immediately widespread in popular iconography, so much so that it was represented in etchings, sculptures, furnishing objects, etc. To understand its fortune we must focus for a moment on its two main protagonists.
First of all, Aristotle: why is he the victim of the satire? Why targeting a philosopher, and not for instance a king or a Pope?
The joke worked on different levels: the most educated could read it as a roast of the Aristotelian doctrine of enkráteia, i.e. temperance, or knowing how to judge the pros and cons of pleasures, knowing how to hold back and dominate, the ability to maintain full control over oneself and one’s own ethical values.
But even the less educated understood that this story was meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy of all philosophers — always preaching about morality, quibbling about virtue, advocating detachment from pleasures and instincts. In short, the story mocked those who love to put theirselves on a pedestal and teach about right and wrong.
On the other hand, there was Phyllis. What was her function within the story?
At first glance the anecdote may seem a classic medieval exemplum designed to warn against the dangerous, treacherous nature of women. A cautionary tale showing how manipulative a woman could be, clever enough to subdue and seduce even the most excellent minds. But perhaps things are not that simple, as we will see.
And finally there’s the act of riding, which implies a further ambiguity of a sexual nature: did this particular type of humiliation hide an erotic allusion? Was it a domination fantasy, or did it instead symbolize a gallant disposition to serve and submit to the beloved maiden fair?
To better understand the context of the story of Phyllis and Aristotle, we must inscribe it in the broader medieval topos of the “Power of Women” (Weibermacht in German).
For example, a very similar anecdote saw Virgil in love with a woman, sometimes called Lucretia, who one night gave him a rendez-vous and lowered a wicker basket from a window so he coulf be lifted up to her room; but she then hoisted the basket just halfway up the wall, leaving Virgil trapped and exposed to public mockery the following morning.
Judith beheading Holofernes, Jael driving the nail through Sisara’s temple, Salome with the head of the Baptist or Delilah defeating Samson are all instances of very popular female figures who are victorious over their male counterparts, endlessly represented in medieval iconography and literature. Another example of the Power of Women trope are funny scenes of wives bossing their husbands around — a recurring theme called the “battle of the trousers”.
These women, whether lascivious or perfidious, are depicted as having a dangerous power over men, yet at the same time they exercise a strong erotic fascination.
The most amusing scenes — such as Aristotle turned into a horse or Virgil in the basket — were designed to arouse laughter in both men and women, and were probably also staged by comic actors: in fact the role reversal (the “Woman on Top”) has a carnivalesque flavor. In presenting a paradoxical situation, maybe these stories had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the hierarchical structure in a society dominated by males.
And yet Susan L. Smith, a major expert on the issue, is convinced that their message was not so clearcut:
the Woman on Top is best understood not as a straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism but as a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.
The fact that the story of Phyllis and Aristotle lent itself to a more complex reading is also confirmed by Amelia Soth:
It was an era in which the belief that women were inherently inferior collided with the reality of female rulers, such as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Catherine of Portugal, and the archduchesses of the Netherlands, dominating the European scene. […] Yet the image remains ambiguous. Its popularity cannot be explained simply by misogyny and distrust of female power, because in its inclusion on love-tokens and in bawdy songs there is an element of delight in the unexpected reversal, the transformation of sage into beast of burden.
Perhaps even in the Middle Ages, and at the beginning of the modern period, the dynamics between genres were not so monolithic. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle had such a huge success precisely because it was susceptible to diametrically opposed interpretations: from time to time it could be used to warn against lust or, on the contrary, as a spicy and erotic anecdote (so much so that the couple was often represented in the nude).
For all these reasons, the topos never really disappeared but was subjected to many variations in the following centuries, of which historian Darin Hayton reports some tasty examples.
In 1810 the parlor games manual Le Petit Savant de Société described the “Cheval d’Aristote”, a vaguely cuckold penalty: the gentleman who had to endure it was obliged to get down on all fours and carry a lady on his back, as she received a kiss from all the other men in a circle.
The odd “Aristotle ride” also makes its appearance in advertising posters for hypnotists, a perfect example of the extravagances hypnotized spectators were allegedly forced to perform. (Speaking of the inversion of society’s rules, those two men on the left poster, who are compelled to kiss each other, are worth noting.)
In 1882 another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, brought to the stage his own version of Phyllis and Aristotle, himself taking on the role of the horse. In the photographs, he and his friend Paul Rée are at the mercy of the whip held by Lou von Salomé (the woman Nietzsche was madly in love with).
And finally let’s go back to the present day, and to those pony guys we saw at the beginning.
Today the “perversion of Aristotle”, far from being a warning about the loss of control, has come to mean the exact opposite: it has become a way to allow free rein (pun intended) to erotc imagination.
Ponies on the Delta, a ponly play festival, is held every year in Louisiana where a few hundred enthusiasts get together to engage in trot races, obstacle races and similar activities before a panel of experts. There are online stores that specialize in selling hooves and horse suits, dozens of dedicated social media accounts, and even an underground magazine called Equus Eroticus.
Who knows what the austere Stagirite would have thought, had he known that his name was going to be associated with such follies.
In a certain sense, the figure of Aristotle was really “perverted”: the philosopher had to submit not to the imaginary woman named Phyllis, but to the apocryphal legend of which he became the unwilling protagonist.
In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]
A few days ago I was invited to speak at the Rome Tatttoo Museum for Creative Mornings, a cultural event held every month around the world; it is a free and informal breakfast combined with a conference on a set theme, the same for all 196 cities in which the initiative takes place. January’s theme was SURREAL, and I therefore decided to talk about the relationship between anatomy and surrealism. Here is the revised transcription of my speech.
Near the railway station the annual Foire du Midi is held, gahtering in the capital all the traveling carnivals that tour Belgium.
Our protagonist is this man, just over thirty years old, who’s wandering around the fair and looking at the various attractions until his gaze is captured by a poster advertising Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical museum.
Dr. Spitzner is not even a real doctor, rather an anatomist who tried to set up a museum in Paris; he did not succeed, and started traveling with the carnival. His collection, behind a pedagogical façade (the museum is supposed to inform the public about the risks related to venereal diseases or alcohol abuse), is designed above all to arouse the audience’s mobrid curiosity and voyeurism.
The first thing that attracts the attention of our man is a beautiful wax sculpture of a sleeping woman: a mechanism makes her raise and lower her chest, as if she were breathing. The man pays the ticket and enters the sideshow. But past the red velvet curtains, a vision of wonder and horror appears before his eyes. Pathological waxes show the ravages of syphilis, monstrous bodies like those of the Tocci siamese twins are represented along scenes of surgical operations. Women appear to be operated by “phantom” hands, without arms or bodies. The same sleeping Venus seen at the entrance is dismantled under the eyes of the public, organ after organ, in a sort of spectacular dissection.
The man is upset, and the vision of the Spitzner museum will forever change his life.
In fact, our protagonist is called Paul Delvaux, a painter who until then has only painted post-impressionist (yet quite unimpressive!) bucolic landscapes.
After his visit to the Spitzner museum, however, his art will take a completely different path.
His paintings will turn into dreamlike visions, in which almost all the elements seem to refer to that original trauma or, better, to that original epiphany. The strange non-places which the figures inhabit seem to be suspended halfway between De Chirico‘s metaphysical landscapes and the fake neoclassical sceneries used in fairgrounds; his paintings are populated with sleeping venuses and female nudes, showing a cold and hieratic eroticism, and dozens of skeletons; the train station will become another of Delvaux’s obsessions.
Regarding that experience Delvaux will declare, many years later:
That disturbing, even a little morbid atmosphere, the unusual exhibition of anatomical waxes in a place meant for joy, noise, lights, joviality […] All this has left deep traces in my life for a very long time.The discovery of the Spitzner museum made me veer completely in my conception of painting.
But why was Delvaux so touched by the vision of the inside of the human body?
In Bananas (1971), Woody Allen wakes up after taking a blow on the head, and upon touching the wound he looks at his fingers and exclaims: “Blood!That should be on inside”.I believe this to bethe most concise definition of anatomy as a Freudian repression/denial.
What is inside the body should remain off-scene (obscene). We should never see it, because otherwise it would mean that something went wrong. The inside of our body is a misunderstood territory and a real taboo – we will later attempt to see why.
So of course, there is a certain fascination for the obscene, especially for a man like Delvaux who came from a rigid and puritan family; a mixture of erotic impulses and death.
But there’s more: those waxes have a quality that goes beyond reality. What Delvaux experienced is the surrealism of anatomy.
In fact, whenever we enter an anatomical museum, we’re accessing a totally alien, unsettling, absurd dimension.
It is therefore not surprising that the Surrealists, to whom Delvaux was close, exploited anatomy to destabilize their audience: surrealists were constantly searching for this type of elements, and experiences, which could free the unconscious.
Surrealism also had a fascination for death, right from its very beginnings. One example is the Poisson soluble, Breton‘s syllogy which accompanied the Manifesto (the idea of a “soluble fish” can make us smile, but is in truth desperately dramatic), another is the famous creative game of the “exquisite corpse“.
The Surrealist Manifesto stated it very clearly: “Surrealism will introduce you to Death, which is a secret society”.
So Max Ernst in his collage wroks for Une semaine de bonté often used scraps of anatomical illustrations; Roland Topor cut and peeled his characters with Sadeian cruelty, hinting at the menacing monsters of the unconscious lurking under our skin; Réné Magritte covered his two lovers’ faces with a cloth, as if they were already corpses on the autopsy table, thus giving the couple a funereal aspect.
But Hans Bellmer above all put anatomy at the core of his lucid expressive universe, first with his series of photos of his handcrafted ball-joint dolls, with which he reinvented the female body; and later in his etchings, where the various anatomical details merge and blur into new configurations of flesh and dream. All of Bellmer’s art is obsessively and fetishly aimed at discovering the algorithm that makes the female body so seductive (the “algebra of desire”, according to its own definition).
In the series of lithographs entitled Rose ouverte la nuit, in which a girl lifts the skin of her abdomen to unveil her internal organs, Bellmer is directly referring to the iconography of terracotta/wax anatomical models, and to ancient medical illustrations.
This idea that the human body is a territory to explore and map, is directly derived from the dawn of the anatomical discipline. The first one who cut this secret space open for study purposes, at least in a truly programmatic way, was Vesalius. I have often written about him, and to understand the extent of his revolution you might want to check out this article.
Yet even after Vesalio the feelings of guilt attached to the act of dissection did not diminish – opening a human body was still seen as a desecration.
According to various scholars, this sense of guilt is behind the “vivification” of the écorchés, the flayed cadavers represented in anatomical plates, which were shown in plastic poses as if they were alive and perfectly well – an iconography partly borrowed from that of the Catholic saints, always eager to exhibit the mutilations they suffered during martyrdom.
In the anatomical plates of the 17th and 18th centuries, this tendency becomes so visionary as to become involuntarily fantasy-like (see R. Caillois, Au cœur du fantastique, 1965).
A striking example is the following illustration (from the Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano by Valverde, 1556) showing a dissected cadaver which in turn is dissecting another one: surrealism ante litteram, and a quite extraordinary macabre fantasy.
At the time scholars were quite aware of the aesthetic problem: two of the greatest anatomists of the late 17th century, Govert Bidloo and Frederik Ruysch, became bitter enemies precisely because they disagreed on which kind of aesthetics was more suitable for the anatomical discipline.
Bidloo, in his treatises, had ordered the illustrations to be as realistic as possible. Dissection was shown in a very graphic way, with depictions of tied bodies and fixing pins. This was no idealized view at all, as realism was pushed to the extreme in a plate which even included a fly landing on the corpse.
On the other hand, Ruysch’s sensibility was typical of wunderkammern, and as he embellished his animal preparations with compositions of shells and corals, he did so also with human preparations, to make them more pleasing to the eye.
His anatomical preparations were artistic, sometimes openly allegorical; his now-lost dioramas were quite famous in this regard, as they were made entirely from organic materials (kidney stones used as rocks, arteries and dried veins as trees, fetal skeletons drying their tears on handkerchiefs made from meninges, etc.).
Often the preserved parts were embellished with laces and embroidery made by Ruysch’s daughter Rachel, who from an early age helped her father in his dissections (she can be seen standing on the right with a skeleton in her hand in Van Neck‘s Anatomy Lesson by Dr. Frederik Ruysch).
We could say that Ruysch was both an anatomist and a showman (therefore, a forerunner of that Dr. Spitzner whose museum so impressed Delvaux), who exploited his own art in a spectacular way in order to gain success in European courts. And in a sense he won his dispute with Bidloo, because the surreal quality of anatomical illustrations remained almost unchallenged until the advent of positivism.
Going back to the 1900s, however, things start to radically change from the middle of the century. Two global conflicts have undermined trust in mankind and in history; traditional society begins breaking down, technology enters the people’s homes and work becomes more and more mechanized. Thus a sense of loss of idenity, which also involves the body, begins to emerge.
If in the 1930s Fritz Kahn (above) could still look at anatomy with an engineering gaze, as if it were a perfect machine, in the second half of the century everything was wavering. The body becomes mutant, indefinite, fluid, as is the case in Xia Xiaowan‘s glass paintings, which change depending on the perspective, making the subject’s anatomy uncertain.
Starting from the 60s and the 70s, the search for identity implies a reappropriation of the body as a canvas on which to express one’s own individuality: it is the advent of body art and of the customization of the body (plastic surgery, tattoos, piercing).
The body becomes victim of hybridizations between the organic and the mechanical, oscillating between dystopian visions of flesh and metal fused together – as in Tetsuo or Cronenberg’s films – and cyberpunk prophecies, up to the tragic dehumanization of a fully mechanized society depicted by Tetsuya Ishida.
In spite of millenarians, however, the world does not end in the year 2000 nor in the much feared year 2012. Society continues to change, and hybridization is a concept that has entered the collective unconscious; an artist like Nunzio Paci can now use it in a non-dystopian perspective, guided by ecological concerns. He is able to intersect human anatomy with the animal and plant kingdom in order to demonstrate our intimate communion and continuity with nature; just like Kate McDowell does in her ceramics works.
The anatomical and scientific imagery becomes disturbing, on the other hand, in the paintings of Spanish artist Dino Valls, whose characters appear to be victims of esoteric experiments, continually subjected to invasive examinations, while their tear-stained eyes suggest a tragic, ancestral and repeated dimension.
Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin used the body – both the imperfect and different body, and the anatomized body, literally cut into pieces – to represent the beauty of the soul in an aesthetic way. A Catholic fervent, Witkin is truly convinced that “everything is illuminated”, and his research has a mystical quality. Looking for the divine even in what scares us or horrifies us, his aim is to expose our substantial identity with God. This might be the meaning of one of his most controversial works, The Kiss, in which the two halves of a severed head are positioned as if kissing each other: love is to recognize the divine in the other, and every kiss is nothing but God loving himself. (Here you can find my interview with Witkin – Italian only.)
Valerio Carrubba‘s works are more strictly surrealistic, and particularly interesting because they bring the pictorial medium closer to its anatomical content: the artist creates different versions of the same picture one above the other, adding layers of paint as if they were epidermal layers, only the last of which remains visible.
Anatomy’s still-subversive power is testified by its widespread use within the current of pop surrealism, often creating a contrast between childish and lacquered images and the anatomical unveiling.
Also our friend Stefano Bessoni makes frequent reference to anatomy, in particular in one of his latest works which is dedicated to the figure of Rachel, the aforementioned daughter of Ruysch.
Much in the same satirical and rebellious vein is the work of graffiti artist Nychos, who anatomizes, cuts into pieces and exposes the entrails of some of the most sacred icons of popular culture. Jessica Harrison reserves a similar treatment to granma’s china, and Fernando Vicente uses the idea of vanitas to spoof the sensual imagery of pin-up models.
And the woman’s body, the most subject to aesthetic imperatives and social pressures, is the focus of Sally Hewett‘s work, revolving around those anatomical details that are usually considered unsightly – surgical scars, cellulite, stretch marks – in order to reaffirm the beauty of imperfection.
Autopsy, the act of “looking with one’s own eyes”, is the first step in empirical knowledge.
But looking at one’s own body involves a painful and difficult awareness: it also means acknowledging its mortality. In fact, the famous maxim inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself“, was essentially a memento mori (as evidenced by the mosaic from the Convent of San Gregorio on the Appian Way). It meant “know who you are, understand your limits, remember your finitude”.
This is perhaps the reason why blood “should be on the inside”, and why our inner landscape of organs, adipose masses and vascularized tissues still seems so unfamiliar, so disgusting, so surreal. We do not want to think about it because it reminds us of our unfortunate reality of limited, mortal animals.
But our very identity can not exist without this body, though fleeting and fallible; and our denial of anatomy, in turn, is exactly the reason why artists will continue to explore its imagery.
Because the best art is subversive, one that – as in Banksy’s famous definition – should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfotable.