This image is perhaps my favorite anatomical plate ever, from Valverde‘s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1556. From a philological point of view it is one of those images that demonstrate how sacred iconography influenced anatomical illustration (the reference here is San Bartolomeo), but my love for this figure is motivated by another aspect.
Not only is it a refined, metaphysical, surreal, grotesque and disturbing plate, but above all it is philosophically programmatic. The man is holding the dagger in his hand, so he just skinned himself: this is an autopsy not only in the etymological sense of seeing for oneself, looking with one’s own eyes, but above all autopsy as seeing oneself.
The famous warning of the temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, involves an act of cruelty: every introspection implies stripping away from appearances (the superficial skin) and making a scorched earth of one’s own certainties. To look “inside” in a honest way you have to flay yourself, a process that is anything but pleasant.
The mosaic of San Gregorio in Rome, in the second image, bears the inscription gnōthi sautón, know thyself: and it is no coincidence that it represents another écorché ante litteram, this time used as a memento mori.
Knowing oneself means considering one’s own mortality, but each of us has to decide: is accepting impermanence the end of any quest, or just the beginning?
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 surgical tool kit that was used to perform the autopsy on Napoleon’s body at Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of History of Medicine in Paris.
But few people know that those scalpels probably also emasculated the Emperor.
In his last few months on Saint Helena, Napoleon suffered from excruciating stomach pains. Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island under whose control Bonaparte had been confined, dismissed the whole thing as a slight anemia. Yet on May 5, 1821 Bonaparte died.
The autopsy conducted the following day by Napoleon’s personal physician, Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, revealed that he had been killed by a stomach tumor, aggravated by large ulcers (although the actual causes of death have been debated).
But during the autoptic examination Antommarchi apparently took some liberties.
Francesco Carlo Antommarchi
The heart was extracted and put in in a vase filled with spirit; it was meant to be delivered to the Emperor’s second wife, Maria Luisa, in Parma. In reality, she must have been hardly impressed by such a token of love, since a few months after Napoleon’s death she already married her lover. The stomach, that cancerous organ responsible for Napoleon’s death, was also removed and preserved in liquid. Antommarchi then made a cast of Bonaparte’s face, from which he later produced the famous death mask displayed at the Musée de l’Armée.
But at this point the doctor from Marseilles decided he’d grab a further, macabre trophy: he severed Napoleon’s penis. Antommarchi’s motives for this extra cut are unclear. Some speculate it might have been some sort of revenge for the way the irascible Napoleon mistreated him in the last few months; according to other sources, the doctor (sometimes described as an ignorant and disrespectful man) simply thought he could make a profit out of it.
But perhaps it was not even Antommarchi who took the controversial specimen. Thirty years later, in 1852, Mamluk Ali (Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon’s most faithful valet) published a memorial in the Revue des Mondes. In the article, Ali attributed the responsibility of this mutilation to himself and to Abbot Angelo Paolo Vignali, the chaplain who administered extreme unction to Bonaparte. He stated that he and Vignali had removed some unspecified “portions” of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy.
All these stories are quite dubious; it seems unlikely that such a disfigurement could go unnoticed. Five English doctors, plus three English and three French officers, were present at Napoleon’s autopsy. After the embalming, his faithful waiter Marchand dressed his body in uniform. How come no one noticed the absence of manhood on the body of the “little corporal”?
In any case, what may or may not have been Napoleon’s true penis, but a penis nonetheless, began to circulate in Europe.
And even if it’s unclear who was responsible for severing it, in the end it was chaplain Vignali who smuggled it back to Corsica, along with more conventional mementos (documents and letters, a few pieces of silverware, a lock of hair, a pair of breeches, etc.), and the organ passed to his heirs upon Vignali’s death in a bloody vendetta in 1828. It remained in the family for almost a century, and was finally purchased by an anonymous buyer at an auction in 1916, together with the entire collection. In the auction catalog, the penis was described with a euphemism: “mummified tendon“.
After being bought by the famous antiquarian bookstore Maggs of London, the lot was resold in 1924 to Philadelphia collector Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach, who exhibited it three years later at the Museum of French Art in New York. Here the penis of Napoleon was on public display for the first and only time, and a jouranlist described it as a “maltreated strip of buck-skin shoelace or a shriveled eel“.
In 1944 Rosenbach sold the collection once again, and it continued to be passed from hand to hand. But despite the historical value of these memorabilia the market proved to be less and less interested, and the Vignali collection remained unsold at various auctions. In 1977 a major part of the collection was acquired by the French government, and destined to join the remains of Napoleon at Les Invalides. Not the penis, however, which the French refused to even acknowledge. It was John K. Lattimer, an American urologist, who bought it for $ 4,000. His intention, it seems, was to permanently remove it from circulation so that it would not be ridiculed.
The urologist had amassed an impressive collection of macabre historical curiosities – from the blood-stained collar that President Lincoln wore on the night of his murder at Ford’s theater, to one of the poison capsules Göring used to commit suicide. Lattimer kept the infamous “mummified tendon” locked away in a suitcase under his bed for years, protecting it from the public’s morbid curiosity, and he always refused any purchase proposal. He X-rayed the specimen, and it turned out to actually be a human penis.
After Lattimer’s death in 2007, his daughter took on the laborious task of archiving this incredible collection.
The penis is still part of the collection: Tony Perrottet, author of the book Napoleon’s Privates, is among the very few who have had the opportunity to see it in person. “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch and a half long. It was like a little baby’s finger.”
Here is the video showing the moment when the writer finally found himself face to face with the illustrious genitals:
One can understand Perrottet’s obvious excitation in the video: the author declared that, to him, Napoleon’s penis is the symbol “of everything that’s interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce all in this one story“. And certainly all these elements do contribute to the fascination we feel for such a relic, which is at once comic, macabre, obscene and titillating. But there’s more.
The body of a man who – for better or for worse – so profoundly changed the history of the world, possesses an almost magical aura. Why then does the thought of it being disrespected and desecrated provoke an unmentionable, subtle satisfaction? Why did Lattimer fear that showing that small, withered and mummified penis would result in public derision?
Perhaps it’s because that little piece of meat looks like a masterpiece of irony, a perfect retaliation.
As comedian George Carlin put it,
men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves and since war is the ultimate competition, basically, men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don’t have to be a historian or a political scientist to see the Bigger Dick foreign policy theory at work.
George Carlin, Jammin’ In New York (1992)
The controversial POTUS tweet (01/03/2018) on who might have the “bigger button”.
On the other hand, this relic also reminds us that Napoleon was mortal, after all, and brings his figure back to the concreteness of a corpse on the autopsy table. The mummified penis takes the place of that hominem te memento (“Remember that you are only a man”) that was repeated in the ear of Roman generals returning from a victory so they wouldn’t get a big head, or the sic transit that the protodeacon pronounced at the passage in San Pietro of the newly elected Pope (“thus passes the glory of the world”).
That flap of shrunken and withered skin is at once a symbol of vanitas, and a mockery of the typical machismo so often exhibited by leaders and rulers. It reminds us that “the Emperor has no clothes”.
Worse: he has no clothes, no life, and no manhood.
Part of the informations in this article come from Bess Lovejoy’s wonderful book Rest In Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses (2014).
One chapter of my book Paris Mirabilia is devoted to the Museum of History of Medicine. Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzippedis essentially a collection of spicy anecdotes about famous historical figures. Among these, one in particular is relevant. During the WWII, Stalin asked Winston Churchill to help out with the Russian army’s “serious condom shortage”. The British Prime Minister had a special batch of extra-large condoms prepared, then sent them to Russia with the label “Made in Britain – Medium“. This glaring example of foreign policy would have delighted George Carlin.
The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.
But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.
But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.
You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?
I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.
In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator. This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world. Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?
I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.
Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?
I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.
You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?
I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.
In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc. These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta. In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique. What’s the appeal of that period?
I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.
A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?
My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”. As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations. What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?
As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.
Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.
You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?
In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
(Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)
A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?
Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.
Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.
Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.
Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:
But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:
Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.
Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
Imagine living in a country whose government decided to block any scientific discovery coming from abroad.
Even worse: imagine living in this hypothetical country, at the exact time when the most radical revolution of human knowledge in history is taking place in the world, a major transformation bound to change the way Man looks at the Universe — of which you ignore every detail, since they are prohibited by law.
This was probably a scientist’s nightmare in Japan during sakoku, the protectionist policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enacted around 1640, officially to stop the advance of Christianity after the Shimabara rebellion, this line of severe restrictions was actually devised to control commerce: in particular, what the Shogun did was to deny access and trade above all to the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were considered dangerous because of their colonial and missionary ambitions in the New World.
China, Korea and the Netherlands were granted the opportunity of buying and selling. Being the only Europeans who could carry on trading, in the enclave of Dejima, the Dutch established with the Land of the Rising Sun an important economic and cultural relationship which lasted for more than two centuries, until the sakoku policy was terminated officially in 1866.
As we were saying, Japan ran the risk of being cut off from scientific progress, which had begun just a century before, in that fateful year of our Lord 1543 when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and Vesalius his Fabrica — two books which in one fell swoop dismantled everything that was believed was above and inside Man.
If the nightmare we previously mentioned never became true, it was because of the Rangaku movement, a group of researchers who set out to carefully study everything the Dutch brought to Japan.
Although for the first eighty years of “isolation” the majority of Western books were banned, ideas kept on circulating and little by little this quarantine of culture loosened up: the Japanese were allowed to translate some fundamental works on optics, chemistry, geography, mechanical and medical sciences.
In the first half of the XIX Century there were several Rangaku schools, translations of Western books were quite widespread and the interaction between japanese and foreign scientists was much more common.
Medical studies were recognized since the beginning as a field in which cultural exchange was essential.
In Japan at that time, physicians followed the Chinese tradition, based on religious/spiritual views of the body, where precise anatomical knowledge was not seen as necessary. Human dissections were prohibited, according to the principles of Confucianism, and those doctors who really wanted to know the inside of the human body had to infer any information by dissecting otters, dogs and monkeys.
The very first autopsy, on an executed criminal, took place in 1754 and was conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō. The dissection itself was carried out by an assistant, because it was still a taboo for higher classes to touch human remains.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the inside of a human body was much more similar to the Dutch illustrations than to those of traditional Chinese medicine books. The account of the autopsy signed by Yamawaki caused the uproar of the scientific community; in it, he strongly supported an empyrical approach, an unconceivable position at the time:
Theories may be overturned, but how can real material things deceive? When theories are esteemed over reality, even a man of great widsom cannot fail to err. When material things are investigated and theories are based on that, even a man of common intelligence can perform well.
In 1758, one of Yamawaki’s students, Kōan Kuriyama, conducted the second dissection in Japanese history, and was also the first physician to cut up a human body with his own hands, without resorting to an assistant.
Sugita Genpaku was another doctor who was shocked to find out that the illustrations of Western “barbarians” were more accurate than the usual Chinese diagrams. In his memoir Rangaku Koto Hajime (“Beginning of Dutch Studies”, 1869), he recounts the time when, together with other physicians, he dissected the body of a woman called Aochababa, hanged in Kyoto in the Kozukappara district (now Aeakawa) in 1771. Before starting the autopsy, they examined a Western anatomy book, the Ontleedkundige Tafelen by Johann Adam Kulmus:
Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs. […] Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions. [Even the bones] were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.
Genpaku spent the following three years translating the Dutch textbook. The task had to be carried out without any knowledge of the language, nor dictionaries available for consultation, by means of constant interpretations, deductions, and discussions with other doctors who had been in contact with the Europeans in Nagasaki. Genpaku’s colossal effort, similar to an actual decryption, was eventually published in 1774.
The Kaitai Shinsho was the first Japanese illustrated book of modern anatomy.
As Chinese traditional medicine gradually began to pale in comparison to the effectiveness and precision of knowledge coming from Europe, in Japan the practice of dissection became widespread.
This was the context for the real masterpiece of the time, the Kaibo Zonshishu (1819), a scroll containing 83 anatomical illustrations created by Doctor Yasukazu Minagaki.
Minagaki, born in Kyoto in 1785, attended public school and became a physician at a clinic in his hometown; but he also was a better and more gifted artist than his predecessors, so he decided to paint in a meticulous way the results of some forty autopsies he had witnessed. The scroll was part of a correspondence between Minagaki and the Dutch physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who praised the admirable drawings of his Japanese collegue.
There are several online articles on the Kaibo Zonshishu, and almost all of them claim Minagaki was obviously distant from the classicist European iconography of the écorchés — those flayed models showing their guts while standing in plastic, Greek poses. The cadavers dissected here, on the other hand, are depicted with stark realism, blood trickling down their mouth, their faces distorted in a grimace of agony.
But this idea is not entirely correct.
Already since the XVI Century, in Europe, the écorchés paired with illustrations of an often troubling realism: one just needs to look at the dissection of the head by Johann Dryander, pre-Vesalian even, but very similar to the one by Minagaki, or at the cruel anatomical plates by Dutch artist Bidloo in his Anatomia Hvmani Corporis (1685), or again at the corpses of pregnant women by William Hunter, which caused some controversy in 1774.
These Western predecessors inspired Minagaki, like they had already influenced the Kaitai Shinsho. One clear example:
The representation of tendons in the Kaibo Zonshishu…
…was inspired by this plate from the Kaitai Shinsho, which in turn…
…was taken from this illustration by Govand Bidloo (Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, Amsterdam, 1690).
Anyway, aside from aesthethic considerations, the Kaibo Zonshishu was probably the most accurate and vividly realistic autoptic compendium ever painted in the Edo period (so much so that it was declared a national treasure in 2003).
When finally the borders were open, thanks to the translation work and cultural diffusion operated by the Rangaku community, Japan was able to quickly keep pace with the rest of the world.
And to become, in less than a hundred years, one of the leading countries in cutting-edge technology.
You can take a look at the Kaitai Shinshohere, and read the incredible story of its translation here. On this page you can find several other beautiful pics on the evolution of anatomical illustration in Japan.
Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.
Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.
Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.
Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.
This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.
For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.
(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)
What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:
We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.
The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:
In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of thewalls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing himappeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While someretained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemedlike lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against thebare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellowskins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.
Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.
This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and inplaces bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broadand strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white formdisplayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a blackband, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at afew paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lacemantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broadchest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.
Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:
The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open,and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of themand treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied,declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day. Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixedand dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked inon their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companionsof the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making wittyremarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, thebodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity,and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.
In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.
And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.
Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.
The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.
Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.
I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.
The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.
There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).
The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.
In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”
Some days ago I was contacted by a pathologist who recently discovered Bizzarro Bazar, and said she was particularly impressed by the website’s “lack of morbidity”. I could not help but seize the opportunity of chatting a bit about her wonderful profession: here is what she told me about the different aspects of this not so well-known job, which is all about studying deformity, dissimilarities and death to understand what keeps us alive.
What led you to become a pathologist?
When I was sixteen I decided I had to understand disease and death.
The pathologist’s work is very articulated and varied, and mostly executed on living persons… or at least on surgically removed parts of living persons; but undoubtedly one of the routine activities is the autoptical diagnosis, and this is exactly one of the reasons behind my choice, I won’t deny it. Becoming a pathologist was the best way to draw on my passion for anatomy, turning it into a profession, and what’s more I would also have the opportunity of exorcising my fear of death by getting accustomed to it… getting my hands dirty and looking at it up close. I wanted to understand and investigate how people die. Maybe part of it had to do with my visual inclination, and pathology is a morphologic discipline which requires sharp visual memory and attention to macro and microscopic details, to differences in shape, to nuances in color.
Is there some kind of common prejudice against your job? How did you explain your “vocation” to friends and relatives?
Actually the general public is not precisely aware of what the pathologist does, hence a certain morbid curiosity on the part of non-experts. Most of them think of Kay Scarpetta, from Cornwell’s novels, or CSI. When people asked me about my job, at the beginning of my career, I gave detailed explanations of all the non-macabre aspects of my work, namely the importance of an hystological diagnosis in oncology, in order to plan the correct treatment. I did this to avoid a certain kind of curiosity, but I was met with puzzled looks. To cut it short, I would then admit: “I also perform autopsies”, and eventually there was a spark of interest in their eyes. I never felt misjudged, but I sometimes noticed some sort of uneasiness. And maybe some slightly sexist prejudice (the unasked question being how can a normal girl be into this kind of things); those female sexy pathologists you find in novels and TV series were not fashionable yet, and at the postgraduate school I was the only woman. As for friends and relatives… well, my parents never got in the way with my choices… I believe they still haven’t exactly figured out exactly what I do, and if I try to tell them they ask me to spare them the details! As for my teenage kids, who are intrigued by my job, I try to draw their attention to the scientific aspects. In the medical environment there is still this idea of a pathologist being some kind of nerd genius, or a person who is totally hopeless in human interactions, and therefore seeks shelter in a specialization that is not directly centered on doctor-patient relationship. Which is not necessarily true anymore, by the way, as often pathologists perform biopsies, and therefore interact with the patient.
Are autopsies still important today?
Let’s clarify: in Italy, the anatomopatologo is not a forensic pathologist, but is closer to what would be known in America as a surgical pathologist. The autopsy the pathologist performs is on people who died in a hospital (and not on the deceased who fell from a height or committed suicide, for instance) to answer to a very specific clinical inquiry, while the legal autopsy is carried out by the legal MD on behalf of the DA’s office.
One would think that, with the development of imaging radiology tests, the autoptic exam would have by now become outdated. In some facilities they perform the so-called “virtual autopsy” through CAT scans. In reality, in those cases in which a diagnosis could not be determined during the deceased’s life, an autopsy is still the only exam capable of clarifying the final cause of death. Besides direct examination, it allows to take organ samples to be studied under the microscope with conventional coloring or to be submitted for more refined tests, such as molecular biology. In the forensic field, direct examination of the body allows us to gather information on the chronology, environment and modality of death, all details no other exam could provide.
There is of course a great difference (both on a methodological and emotional level) between macroscopic and microscopic post mortem analysis. In your experience, for scientific purposes, is one of the two phases more relevant than the other or are they both equally essential?
They are both essential, and tightly connected to each other: one cannot do without the other. The visual investigation guides the following optic microscopy exam, because the pathologist samples a specific area of tissue, and not another, to be submitted to the lab on the grounds of his visual perception of dissimilarity.
In my experience of autopsy rooms, albeit limited, I have noticed some defense strategies being used to cope with the most tragic aspects of medical investigation. On one hand a certain humor, though never disrespectful; and, on the other, little precautions aimed at preserving the dignity of the body (but which may also have the function of pushing away the idea that an autopsy is an act of violation). How did you get used to the roughest side of your job?
I witnessed my first autopsy during my first year in medical school, and I still remember every detail of it even today, 30 years later. I nearly fainted. However, once I got over the first impact, I learned to focus on single anatomical details, as if I were a surgeon in the operating room, proceeding with great caution, avoiding useless cuts, always keeping in mind that I’m not working on a corpse, but a person. With his own history, his loved ones, presumably with somebody outside that room who is now crying for the loss. One thing I always do, after the external exam and before I begin to cut, is cover up the face of the dead person. Perhaps with the illogical intent of preventing him to see what I’m about to do… and maybe to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being watched.
Are there subjects that are more difficult to work with, on the emotional level?
Are autopsies, as a general rule, open to a non-academic public in Italy? Would you recommend witnessing an autopsy?
No, all forensic autopsies are not accessible, for obvious reasons, since there is often a trial underway; neither are the diagnostic post mortem examinations in hospitals. I wouldn’t know whether to recommend seeing an autopsy to anyone. But I do believe every biology or medicine student should be allowed in.
One of the aspects that always fascinated me about pathological anatomy museums is the vitality of disease, the exuberant creativity with which forms can change: the pathological body is fluid, free, forgetful of those boundaries we think are fixed and insurmountable. You just need to glance at some bone tumors, which look like strange mineral sponges, to see the disease as a terrible blooming force.
Maybe this feeling of wonder before a Nature both so beautiful and deadly, was the one animating the first anatomists: a sort of secret respect for the disease they were fighting off, not much different from the hunter’s reverential fear as he studies his prey before the massacre. Have you ever experienced this sense of the sublime? Does the apparent paradox of the passionate anatomist (how can one be a disease enthusiast?) have something to do with this admiration?
To get passionate, in our case, means to feel inclined towards a certain field, a certain way of doing research, a certain method and approach which links a morphologic phenomenon to a functional phenomenon. We do not love disease, we love a discipline which teaches us to see (Domine, ut videam) in order to understand the disease. And, hopefully, cure it.
And yes, of course there is the everyday experience of the sublime, the aesthetic experience, the awe at shapes and colors, and the information they convey. If we know how to interpret it.
Speaking of the vitality of disease: today we recognize in some teratologic specimens a proof of the attempts through which evolution gropes around, one failed experiment after the other. How many of these maladies (literally, “being not apt”) are actually the exact opposite, an adaptation attempt? Is any example of mutation (which a different genetic drift might have elected to dominant phenotype) always pathological?
What I really mean to ask is, of course, another one of those questions that any pathological anatomy museum inevitably suggests: what are the actual boundaries of the Norm?
The norm is established on a statistical basis following a Gaussian distribution curve, but what falls beyond the 90th percentile (or before the 10th) is not forcibly unnatural, or unhealthy, or sick. It is just statistically less represented in the general population in respect to the phenotype we are examining. Whether a statistically infrequent character will be an advantage only time will tell.
The limits of the norm are therefore conventionally established on a mathematical basis. What is outside of the norm is just more uncommon. Biology undergoes constant transformation (on the account of new medicines or therapies, climatic and environmental change, great migrations…), and therefore we are always confronted with new specimens coming in. That is why our job is always evolving, too.
I didn’t expect such a technical answer… mine was really a “loaded” question. As you know, for years I have been working on the concepts of dissimilarity, exoticism and diversity, and I wanted to provoke you – to see whether from your standpoint a mutant body could also be considered as a somewhat revolutionary space, a disruptive element in a context demanding total compliance to the Norm.
Ask a loaded question… and you’ll get a convenient answer. You’re talking about a culture demanding compliance to a social norm, I replied in terms of the biology demanding compliance to a norm that is established by the scientific community on a frequency-based statistic calculation — which is therefore still conventional. In reality, deformity appears in unexpected ways, and should be more correctly described following a probabilistic logic, and not frequency. But I’m beginning to sound technical again.
I have seen respected professors lighten up like children before some pathological wet specimens. The feeling I had was that the medical gaze in some ways justified an interest for extreme visions, usually precluded to the general public. Is it an exclusively scientific interest? Is it possible to be passionate about this kind of work, without being somehow fascinated by the bizarre?
There could be a little self-satisfaction at times. But in general there is sincere passion and enthusiasm for the topic, and that surely cannot be faked. It is a job you can only do if you love it.
All our discipline is based on the differential diagnosis between “normal” and “pathological”. I could say that everything pathological is dysmorphic in respect to the norm, therefore it is bizarre, different. So yes, you have to feel a the fascination for the bizarre. And be very curious.
The passion for the macabre is a growing trend, especially among young people, and it is usually deemed negative or cheap, and strongly opposed by Italian academics. This does not happen in other realities (not just the US, but also the UK for instance) in which a common element of communication strategies for museums has become the ability of arousing curiosity in a vast public, sometimes playing on pop and dark aspects. Come for the macabre, stay for the science. If young people are drawn to the subject via the macabre imaginary, do you think in time this could lead to the education of new, trustworthy professionals?
Yes, it’s true, there is a growing interest, I’m thinking of some famous anatomical exhibitions which attracted so many visitors they had to postpone the closing date. There is also my kids’ favorite TV show about the most absurd ways to die. I believe that all this is really an incentive and should be used as a basis to arouse curiosity on the scientific aspects of these topics. I think that we can and must use this attraction for the macabre to bring people and particularly youngsters closer to science, even more so in these times of neoshamanic drifts and pseudo-scientific rants. Maybe it could also serve the purpose of admitting that death is part of our daily lives, and to find a way to relate to it. As opposed to the Anglo-Saxon countries, in Italy there still is a religious, cultural and legislative background that partially gets in the way (we have laws making it hard to dissect bodies for study, and I also think of the deeply-rooted idea that an autopsy is a violation/desecration of the corpse, up to those prejudices against science and knowledge leading to grotesque actions like the petition to close the Lombroso Museum).
Has your job changed your relationship with death and dying in any way?
I would say it actually changed my relationship with life and living. My worst fear is no longer a fear of dying. I mostly fear pain, and physical or mental decay, with all the limitations they entail. I hope for a very distant, quick and painless death.
With your twenty years experience in the field, can you think of some especially curious anecdotes or episodes you came across?
Many, but I don’t feel comfortable relating episodes that revolve around a person’s remains. But I can tell you that I often do not wonder how these people died, but rather how in the world they could be alive in the first place, given all the diseases I find! And, to me, life looks even more like a precariously balanced wonder.