Even the hospital, in Venice, is a Renaissance masterpiece: the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which opens into Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is considered one of the greatest architectural and artistic jewels of the lagoon city.
Right next to the main entrance, located in the spaces of the former Scuola di Santa Maria della Pace, it is possible to visit the small “Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy.
The birth of the collection can be traced back to 1874, when the hospital’s anatomical dissector was recommended to preserve the most relevant anatomopathological specimens. From that time on, the collection was regularly supplemented, particularly thanks to the work of Giuseppe Jona. The museum houses the death mask of Jona himself, an extraordinary figure of a physician and a man who under in 1943 committed suicide in order not to reveal to the German authorities the names of the Jews left in Venice.
The museum consists of one small room, and has nine display cases with dry and liquid preparations. Among the osteological exhibits are bone tumors, hyperostosis, trauma, a collection of 10 femurs and 32 skull caps showing various pathologies. A collection of ancient calculi shows how this affliction, in the days when it could not be treated promptly, could become a very serious problem. The liquid preparations, on the other hand, are principalmnte designed to illustrate certain diseases that affected the Venetian lagoon in particular, related to epidemics (tuberculosis), to once-common diseases (leprosy), or to glassmaking.
But it is one preparation in particular that attracts attention, in a display case placed right in the center of the room: the whole body of a male affected by various malformations, including kyphosis and dwarfism.
The striking details of this find, with a stature of 67 cm and an estimated age of around 50 years, are many. The shrunken body still possesses hair, facial hair, but most importantly-uncommon detail-it still has eyes in situ.
The visible incision on the skull is typical of an autopsy, but it is the two large sutures on the chest and back that are unusual. After the autopsy, evidently this gentleman was prepared for museum purposes. Initially scholars thought the method used was tannization by Lodovico Brunetti, the same anatomist who prepared the “Punished Suicide“. Tannization was an anatomical preservation process that involved, after cleaning and degreasing the tissues, ultilizing them with tannic acid diluted with demineralized water and dehydrating them with compressed hot air.
But when this Venetian artifact was inspected radiographically, it was discovered that it was devoid of internal organs, which had been replaced by a filling material. This gentleman was eviscerated, his skin removed, dehydrated, and finally repositioned on his previously treated skeleton by filling the remaining empty cavities with tow or other material. This is thus an authentic human taxidermy, the same procedure used for stuffing animals.
I have often been asked over the years why we do not “stuff” human beings. The answer is that it’s been tried, but the results are not particularly good. Over time, dried human skin tends to shrink, becomes brittle and easy to crack, and any prosthetic eyes eventually emerge unnaturally. The color of the epidermis is also not kept particularly true, and the questionable results of this technique can be seen in the few taxidermies in anatomical museums (below is a display case of human taxidermies at the Museum of Sanitary Art in Rome).
The taxidermied human specimen from Venice is truly unique, both because of the decision to prepare it in this rather unusual way and because of the pathologies it illustrates. And, like all “integral” anatomical specimens, it also encourages our emotional reaction: it is impossible not to wonder what kind of life this man, dwarfed and hunchbacked, had in the Venice of the second half of the 19th century; what hardships and pains he suffered, but also what desires and happiness he might have known, before ending up eternalized in a museum. The treatment meted out to him, commonly used for animals, might seem like a final affront, but it actually relates back to a fervent period of continuous experimentation, in which countless different techniques were tried out to perfect the art of anatomical preparation.
Personally, therefore, I find both specular aspects, pathos and pietas, moving and humane. The pathos of the human subject that forms the basis of the anatomical object, the often anonymous existence behind any preparation, with its sometimes tragic uniqueness; and the pietas that is inherent in the medical vocation as well as in the desire to preserve deformity and disease for the purpose of study, to understand their mystery and to try, if possible, to cure and alleviate the suffering of others.