The Punished Suicide

This article originally appeared on Death & The Maiden, a website exploring the relationship between women and death.

Padova, Italy. 1863.

One ash-grey morning, a young girl jumped into the muddy waters of the river which ran just behind the city hospital. We do not know her name, only that she worked as a seamstress, that she was 18 years old, and that her act of suicide was in all probability provoked by “amorous delusion”.
A sad yet rather unremarkable event, one that history could have well forgotten – hadn’t it happened, so to speak, in the right place and time.

The city of Padova was home to one of the oldest Universities in history, and it was also recognized as the cradle of anatomy. Among others, the great Vesalius, Morgagni and Fallopius had taught medicine there; in 1595 Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente had the first stable anatomical theater built inside the University’s main building, Palazzo del Bo.


In 1863, the chair of Anatomical Pathology at the University was occupied by Lodovico Brunetti (1813-1899) who, like many anatomists of his time, had come up with his own process for preserving anatomical specimens: tannization. His method consisted in drying the specimens and injecting them with tannic acid; it was a long and difficult procedure (and as such it would not go on to have much fortune) but nonetheless gave astounding results in terms of quality. I have had the opportunity of feeling the consistency of some of his preparations, and still today they maintain the natural dimensions, elasticity and softness of the original tissues.
But back to our story.

When Brunetti heard about the young girl’s suicide, he asked her body be brought to him, so he could carry out his experiments.
First he made a plaster cast of the her face and upper bust. Then he peeled away all of the skin from her head and neck, being especially careful as to preserve the girl’s beautiful golden hair. He then proceeded to treat the skin, scouring it with sulfuric ether and fixing it with his own tannic acid formula. Once the skin was saved from putrefaction, he laid it out over the plaster cast reproducing the girl’s features, then added glass eyes and plaster ears to his creation.

But something was wrong.
The anatomist noticed that in several places the skin was lacerated. Those were the gashes left by the hooks men had used to drag the body out of the water, unto the banks of the river.
Brunetti, who in all evidence must have been a perfectionist, came up with a clever idea to disguise those marks.

He placed some wooden branches beside her chest, then entwined them with tannised snakes, carefully mounting the reptiles as if they were devouring the girl’s face. He poured some red candle wax to serve as blood spurts, and there it was: a perfect allegory of the punishment reserved in Hell to those who committed the mortal sin of  suicide.

He called his piece The Punished Suicide.

Now, if this was all, Brunetti would look like some kind of psychopath, and his work would just be unacceptable and horrifying, from any kind of ethical perspective.
But the story doesn’t end here.
After completing this masterpiece, the first thing Brunetti did was showing it to the girl’s parents.
And this is where things take a really weird turn.
Because the dead girl’s parents, instead of being dismayed and horrified, actually praised him for the precision shown in reproducing their daughter’s features.
So perfectly did I preserve her physiognomy – Brunetti proudly noted, – that those who saw her did easily recognize her”.

But wait, there’s more.
Four years later, the Universal Exposition was opening in Paris, and Brunetti asked the University to grant him funds to take the Punished Suicide to France. You would expect some kind of embarrassment on the part of the university, instead they happily financed his trip to Paris.


At the Exposition, thousands of spectators swarmed in from all around the world to see the latest innovations in technology and science, and saw the Punished Suicide. What would you think happened to Brunetti then? Was he hit by scandal, was his work despised and criticized?
Not at all. He won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions.

If you feel kind of dizzy by now, well, you probably should.
Looking at this puzzling story, we are left with only two options: either everybody in the whole world, including Brunetti, was blatantly insane; or there must exist some kind of variance in perception between our views on mortality and those held by people at the time.
It always strikes me how one does not need to go very far back in time to feel this kind of vertigo: all this happened less than 150 years ago, yet we cannot even begin to understand what our great-great-grandfathers were thinking.
Of course, anthropologists tell us that the cultural removal of death and the medicalization of dead bodies are relatively recent processes, which started around the turn of the last century. But it’s not until we are faced with a difficult “object” like this, that we truly grasp the abysmal distance separating us from our ancestors, the intensity of this shift in sensibility.
The Punished Suicide is, in this regard, a complex and wonderful reminder of how society’s boundaries and taboos may vary over a short period of time.
A perfect example of intersection between art (whether or not it encounters our modern taste), anatomy (it was meant to illustrate a preserving method) and the sacred (as an allegory of the Afterlife), it is one of the most challenging displays still visible in the ‘Morgagni’ Museum of Anatomical Pathology in Padova.

This nameless young girl’s face, forever fixed in tormented agony inside her glass case, cannot help but elicit a strong emotional response. It presents us with many essential questions on our past, on our own relationship with death, on how we intend to treat our dead in the future, on the ethics of displaying human remains in Museums, and so on.
On the account of all these rich and fruitful dilemmas, I like to think her death was at least not entirely in vain.

The “Morgagni” Museum of Pathology in Padova is the focus of the latest entry in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, His Anatomical Majesty. Photography by Carlo Vannini. The story of the ‘Punished Suicide’ was unearthed by F. Zampieri, A. Zanatta and M. Rippa Bonati on Physis, XLVIII(1-2):297-338, 2012.

His Anatomical Majesty

The fourth book in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, published by Logos, is finally here.

While the first three books deal with those sacred places in Italy where a physical contact with the dead is still possible, this new work focuses on another kind of “temple” for human remains: the anatomical museum. A temple meant to celebrate the progress of knowledge, the functioning and the fabrica, the structure of the body — the investigation of our own substance.

The Morgagni Museum in Padova, which you will be able to explore thanks to Carlo Vannini‘s stunning photography, is not devoted to anatomy itself, but rather to anatomical pathology.
Forget the usual internal architectures of organs, bones and tissues: here the flesh has gone insane. In these specimens, dried, wet or tannized following Lodovico Brunetti’s method, the unconceivable vitality of disease becomes the real protagonist.

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A true biological archive of illness, the collection of the Morgagni Museum is really a time machine allowing us to observe deformities and pathologies which are now eradicated; before the display cases and cabinets we gaze upon the countless, excruciating ways our bodies can fail.
A place of inestimable value for the amount of history it contains, that is the history of the victims, of those who fell along the path of discovery, as much as of those men who took on fighting the disease, the pioneers of medical science, the tale of their committment and persistence. Among its treasures are many extraordinary intersections between anatomy and art.

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The path I undertook for His Anatomical Majesty was particularly intense on an emotional level, also on the account of some personal reasons; when I began working on the book, more than two years ago, the disease — which up until then had remained an abstract concept — had just reached me in all its destabilizing force. This is why the Museum, and my writing, became for me an initiatory voyage into the mysteries of the flesh, through its astonishments and uncertainties.
The subtitle’s oxymoron, that obscure splendour, is the most concise expression I could find to sum up the dual state of mind I lived in during my study of the collection.
Those limbs marked by suffering, those still expressive faces through the amber formaldehyde, those impossible fantasies of enraged cells: all this led me to confront the idea of an ambivalent disease. On one hand we are used to demonize sickness; but, with much the same surprise that comes with learning that biblical Satan is really a dialectical “adversary”, we might be amazed to find that disease is never just an enemy. Its value resides in the necessary questions it adresses. I therefore gave myself in to the enchantment of its terrible beauty, to the dizziness of its open meaning. I am sure the same fruitful uneasiness I felt is the unavoidable reaction for anyone crossing the threshold of this museum.

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The book, created in strict collaboration with the University of Padova, is enriched by museology and history notes by Alberto Zanatta (anthropologist and curator of the Museum), Fabio Zampieri (history of medicine researcher), Maurizio Rippa Bonati (history of medicine associated professor) and Gaetano Thiene (anatomical pathology professor).

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You can purchase His Anatomical Majesty in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection bookstore on Libri.it.