Anatomy Lessons

The Corpse on Stage

Frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543).

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)

De Raadt writes about this picture:

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.

Asterix and the Soothsayer (1973) Goscinny-Uderzo

Tulp (1993, dir: Stefano Bessoni)

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.

Tulp, Lego version.

Hillary White, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Bird (2010)

FvrMate, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, (2016)

HANGBoY, The Anatomy Lesson (2016)

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.

This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.

Le Violon Noir

Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.

Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne.
His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.

In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district.
Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.

Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.

In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.

The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):

On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.

(in Marc Pincherle, Jean-Marie Leclair l’aîné, 1952,
quoted in
Musicus Politicus, Qui a tué Jean-Marie Leclair?, 2016)

The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.

And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.

But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.

The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.

If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.

You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.

(Thanks, Flavio!)

Sade, A Dark Diamond


After thirty years of legal battles, the manuscript of the 120 Days of Sodom of the Marquis de Sade has returned to France. It is a roll of sheets of paper glued one to the other, like an ancient sacred (or, better, sacrilegious…) book, 12 meters long and 11.5 centimeters wide, written in microscopic calligraphy on the front and back. A colossal work, very long, composed in secret by the Divine Marquis while he was a prisoner in the Bastille. And during the assault on the prison, on that famous July 14, 1789, the manuscript disappeared in the turmoil. Sade died convinced that the work he considered his masterpiece had been lost forever. The manuscript, however, has traveled through Europe amidst incredible vicissitudes (well summarized in this article), until the news a few days ago of its purchase for 7 million euros by a private collection and its probable inclusion in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This means that the book – and consequently its author – will soon be declared national heritage.


Screenshot 2014-04-03 19.23.44


This recognition comes on the 200th anniversary of the author’s death: it took so long for the world to fully realize the value of his work. Sade paid for his artistic research with prison and posthumous infamy, and for this reason he is the most interesting case of collective removal in the history of literature. Western society has not been able to tolerate his writings and, above all, their philosophical implications for two centuries. Why? What do his pages contain that is so scandalous?

Let’s first of all clarify that erotic scenes are not the problem: the libertine literary tradition was already well established before Sade, and counted several books that can certainly be defined as “cruel”. Sade, in fact, was a mediocre writer, with repetitive and boring prose and limited linguistic originality; but this is also an important element, as we will see later. So why so much indignation? What was unacceptable was the total philosophical inversion made by Sade: inversion of values, theological inversion, social inversion. Sade’s vision, very complex and often ambiguous, starts from the idea of evil.

The problem of evil crosses centuries and centuries of Christian philosophy and theology (in the concept of theodicy). If God exists, how can he allow evil to exist? To what end? Why did he not want to create a world free of temptations and simply good?

According to the Enlightenment, God does not exist. Only Nature exists. But good and evil are nevertheless clearly defined, and for man to tend to the good is natural. Sade, on the other hand, goes a step further. Let us look, he suggests, at what is happening in the world. The wicked, the violent, the cruel, have a more prosperous life than virtuous people. They indulge in vice, in pleasures, at the expense of the weak and virtuous people. This means that Nature is on their side, that indeed finds benefit from their behavior, otherwise it would punish their actions. Therefore, Nature is evil, and doing evil means to agree to her will – that is, actually doing something right. Man, according to Sade, tends to good only by habit, by education; but his soul is black and turbid, and outside the rules imposed by society man will always try to satisfy his pleasures, treating his fellow men as objects, humiliating them, subduing them, torturing them, destroying them.




Sade’s research has been compared to that of a mystic; but where the mystic goes towards the light, Sade, on the contrary, seeks the darkness. No one before or after him has ever dared to descend so deeply into the dark side of man, and paradoxically he succeeds in doing so by pushing rationalist thought to its extreme consequences. Goya’s famous painting comes to mind, The sleep of reason generates monstersreading Sade, one has the distinct impression that it is reason itself that creates them, if taken to excess, to the point of questioning moral values.

Here then is the last resort: not only not to condemn evil anymore, but even to promote it and assume it as the ultimate goal of human existence. Obviously, we must remember that Sade spent most of his life in prison for these very ideas; thus, as the years passed, he became increasingly bitter, furious and full of hatred towards the society that had condemned him. It is not surprising that his writings composed in captivity are the most sulphurous, the most extreme, in which Sade seems to take pleasure in destroying and unhinging any moral code. The result is, as we said, a total inversion of values: charity and piety are wrong, virtue brings misfortune, murder is the supreme good, every perversion and human violence is not only excused but proposed as an ideal model of behavior. But did he really believe this? Was he serious? We will never know for sure, and that is what makes him an enigma. All we can say for sure is that there is almost no trace of humor in his writings.


His personality was flamboyant and never tame, perpetually restless and tormented. Impulsive, sexually hyperactive, even his writing was feverish and unrestrained. In The 120 Days of Sodom, Sade proposes to decline all possible human perversions, all the violence, cataloging them with maniacal precision: an encyclopedic novel, colossal even in size, compiled on the sly because at one point the authorities forbade him pen, paper and inkwell. Sade came to write it with a piece of wood using makeshift inks, and sometimes even with his own blood, in order not to interrupt the flow of thoughts and words that flowed from him like a river in flood. For such a character, there were no half measures.

His work is against everything and everyone, with a nihilism so desperate and terminal that no one has ever had the courage to replicate it. It is our black mirror, the abyss we fear so much: reading him means confronting absolute evil, his work continually challenges any of our certainties. Bataille wrote: “The essence of his works is destruction: not only the destruction of the objects, of the victims staged […] but also of the author and his own work.” His prose, we said, is neither elegant nor pleasant; but do you really believe that, given the premises, Sade was interested in being refined? His work is not meant to be beautiful, quite the contrary. Beauty does not belong to him, it disgusts him, and the more revolting his pages are, the more effective they are. What interests him is to show us the rotten, the obscene.

I ignore the art of painting without colors; when vice is within reach of my brush, I draw it with all its hues, all the better if they are revolting. (Aline and Vancour, 1795)


It is understandable, then, why, in his own way, Sade is absolutely unique in the entire history of literature. We need him too, we need his cruelty, he is our dark twin, the repressed and the denied coming back to haunt us. We can be scandalized by his positions, or rather, we must be scandalized: this is what the Divine Marquis would want, after all. What true artists have always done is to propose dilemmas, doubts, crises. And Sade is a dilemma from beginning to end, one that has displaced even scholars for a long time. Bataille compared Sade’s work to a rocky desert, beautifully summarizing the sense of bewilderment he makes us feel:

It is true that his books differ from what is habitually considered literature as an expanse of deserted rocks, devoid of surprises, colorless, differing from the pleasant landscapes, streams, lakes, and fields we delight in. But when will we be able to say that we have succeeded in measuring the full size of that rocky expanse? […] The monstrosity of Sade’s work bores, but this boredom itself is its meaning. (Literature and Evil, 1957)

At the beginning of the twentieth century Sade was finally recognized as a monumental figure in his own way, and his rediscovery (by Apollinaire, and then by the Surrealists) dominated the entire twentieth century and continues to be unavoidable today. The purchase of the manuscript becomes symbolic: after two centuries of obscurantism, Sade returns triumphantly to France, with all the honors and laurels of the case. But it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for a text such as The 120 Days to be metabolized in the same way that our society manages to incorporate and render inoffensive taboos and countercultures – it really is too indigestible a morsel. A cry of revolt against the whole universe, able to resist time and its ruins: a black diamond that continues to spread its dark light.