Friday, 17 June 2011

Bologna - the grisly bits

... Or: a quick trip round the science collections in the Palazzo Poggi.
WARNING: most of the photos in this post range from being in poor taste to being downright macabre. If you are too squeamish for CSI, you should probably leave now.

Still with me?
Okay, the Palazzo Poggi houses the old collections of the Institute of Sciences in Bologna. It was intended, in the 18th century, to present an encyclopedic array of all that was known about science at the time - geology, natural history, anatomy, astronomy, physics, military architecture etc etc. It is just awesome, if you like the old-fashioned Cabinet of Wonders style of museum, and are tickled by the differences in the way the world was seen in the past.

 A chimaera: winner of the Ugliest Dead Fish competition

Now, in the 18th century medical anatomy was vital cutting-edge science. Surgeons and doctors needed to know human anatomy, but the supply of cadavers was problematic and - certainly in hot and muggy Bologna - they didn't keep well. In response, the cottage industry of anatomical wax modelling arose, and climbed to astonishing heights of accuracy and artistry. They were the 3D virtual models of their time.

This is a self-portrait (in wax) of Professor Anna Morandi (1714-74), anatomist and one of the greatest modellers. Notice how she poses with a severed head and exposed brain, though I guess she wouldn't really be wearing her posh frock when she worked.

 Some of her work...

This is a model of the muscles surrounding the anus. Thought you might like to know.

A typical "flayed man" model. They're posed as walking, living creatures. Artistic sensibility is an integral part of the display. Of course, Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition (which I saw a couple of years back) is a direct descendant of this school.

The specimens were emphatically not treated as cold lumps of inert matter divorced from living reality, which can seem really creepy to modern eyes. For example, here's a skeleton - accoutred as Death with his scythe.

This is a model by Clemente Susini, called the Venerina. It's a jigsaw dissection of a young female cadaver, layer by layer. Except that she doesn't look like a corpse - she's warm-coloured, elegant and is still wearing her pearls. It's a sexualised image. Misogynistic exploitation? Necrophilia? Not necessarily, though it looks like it to our eyes. There's a really interesting post by Jessica Palmer (with some startling pictures) postulating that this serene artistic style made things less stark and disturbing for the historical viewer.

After the waxworks we get onto the plaster models of the Obstetrics collection, which frankly I found way more disturbing. (Dead bodies don't upset me. Pain and terror upsets me.) There were walls and walls of models showing what could go wrong with childbirth. Enough to make you keep your legs crossed for the rest of your life.

The solution? This is a glass uterus! Doctors and midwives were trained at the university to deal with breech births and other bad presentations: the lecturer would put a stuffed cloth baby into this womb, and then the student would be blindfolded and have to get it out by touch alone.

How brilliant is that? Ingenuity and scientific rationalism applied to make the world better. I love it!


t'Sade said...

Ooh! That would be awesome to go to. I love cabinets of curiosity in all forms, mainly for the way they pose everything and how it all fits together. Though, part of me also is closer to the scene in Firefly when they go to see an "alien".

Well, just added something to my buckety list.

Jo said...

Wow, those are all amazing. The wax models are so real.

Janine Ashbless said...

I don't know about yours t'Sdade, but oddly enough, my bucket list isn't geting any shorter with the years!

Jo - I'm impressed you looked!

Nikki Magennis said...

Looks incredible. I love the posed woman in pearls.

Jo said...

What's a bucket list??

t'Sade said...

Jo: A bucket list is a relatively small list of things you'd like to do before you die. There is a really good (and sad) movie by the same name, if you want an idea of what it is.

I don't really have a bucket list, per se, mainly because I random go on adventures wherever life takes me. But, I do have a very established fondness for macrabe, and I love pretty much all cabinet of curiosities (much like this). :)

Craig Sorensen said...

Wow, fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing it!

Janine Ashbless said...

I want my life to be a Cabinet of Curiosities! Which I can share with friends, of course :-)

Danielle said...

oh lovely!!!

i wnat the chimaera..would look so great next to my couch!!!

Janine Ashbless said...

It would certainly be a conversation piece, Danielle ...