There appears to be a deep obsession, which remained constant through the centuries, and never subsided. The male obsession for the woman’s body.
A magnetic body that attracts (seduces, “leads astray”), pulling the strings of symbol; yielding and pliable flesh, having a receptive function during sexual intercourse, but also abyssal chasm in which one could get lost; castrating body, which excites violence and idolatry, body of a Callipyge goddess to deflower; chest containing the secret of life, deceptive sex whose pleasure is terrible and unknown.
So the female body has been gouged, to try and reveal its mystery; opened, dismembered into pieces just to be recombined again, probed in a search for occult and secret analogies, for hidden geometries, for the algebra of desire, as for instance Hans Bellmer did throughout his career. In his writings and his paintings (as well as his famous dolls), the German artist has manically deconstructed the female figure, drawing unexpected and uncanny parallels between the various anatomical parts, in a feverish, all-embracing fetishism: eyes, vulvas, feet, ears all fluidly melt together in unprecedented configurations of flesh and dream.
Bellmer’s eroticism lies in a psychopathological, yet very clear, look — both cold and visionary; in his work Rose ouverte la nuit (1934) and all its subsequent variations, the artist gave perhaps the most exact indication of the nature of his enquiry. In the painting, a little girl pulls up the skin of her own womb to examine the underlying bowels.
The act of lifting the woman’s skin, just like a skirt, is one of the most powerful depictions of the obsession we are talking about. It is the ultimate striptease, which leaves the woman more naked than nude, and allows for her insides to be scrutinized, in search for a secret that perhaps mockingly will never be found.
This image is not new, but rather it is meant to evoke the malaise one can feel before the many wonderful, life-size anatomical Venuses, sculpted by fine artists of the past; a tradition born in Florence at the end of XVII Century.
These beautiful young girls, laying down in lingering poses, open the inside of their bodies to the spectator’s eyes, with no sign of shame or pain. Judging by their expression, one would rather say there is a subtle self-satisfaction, some kind of ecstatic pleasure in offering themselves in this absolute nakedness.
Why aren’t these bodies represented as corpses, but essentially alive and awake?
The very existence of similar sculptures may be puzzling today, but it is really a natural evolution of the artistic, scientific and religious preoccupations of the previous centuries. Before delving into these extraordinary ceroplastic works, allow me to summarise their background; I would like to stress the fact that I am not interested here in the history of Venuses, nor exclusively in their scientific relevance, but rather in their peculiar symbolic role in respect to femininity.
Dominion of the gaze
When Vesalius, with incredible bravery (or bravado), immortalized himself on the frontispiece of his De humani corporis fabrica (1543) in the act of personally dissecting a cadaver, he was sending a revolutionary message: galenic medicine, until then undisputed, was packed with errors because no one had bothered to cut open a human body and take a look inside with his own eyes. As a Renaissance man, Vesalius was a strong supporter of direct experience — in a time, and that’s even more remarkable, when “science” as we know it was yet to be born — and he was the first to separate the body from all other metaphysical concerns. After him, the functioning of the human body was no more to be found in astrology, in symbolic-alchemic relationships, or in the elements, but within the body itself.
From this moment on, dissection will remain for centuries the main focus of all medical research. And it is Vesalius’ gaze — daring, haughty, cold as stone — which will become the paradigm of scientific observation.
The moral issue
We have to keep in mind that in the beginning, anatomy was not detached from the religious view, and it was believed that studying Man — the absolute center of Nature, created in the image of the Supreme Being and considered the peak of His work — meant to get closer to God.
And yet, even if direct experience was regarded as fundamental, it was hard to shake the idea that dissecting a corpse was really a form of sacrilege. This troublesome feeling was bypassed by looking for subjects who had somehow lost their “human” status: criminals, suicide victims or poor devils the world would not reclaim. Ideal candidates for the dissection table. The desecration inflicted to their bodies was then further justified by guaranteeing a death Mass and Christian burial to the dissected remains, as a reward for the sacrifice: a privilege they would not have enjoyed otherwise. On the account of their contribution to medical research, having somehow expiated their crime, they were eventually “accepted” by society.
The same sense of guilt for dissection is behind the success of the anatomical engravings featuring the so-called écorchés, the “flayed”. To represent internal structures, it was decided to show the subjects in sculptural poses, alive and kicking despite all appearances, often going to the extent of depicting them as authors or accomplices of their own dissections.
Such a vision was certainly less awkward and shocking than seeing the anatomical parts exposed on a table like butcher meat (see M. Vène, Ecorchés : L’exploration du corps, XVIème-XVIIIème siècle, 2001).
The man, who flayed himself, observes the inside of his own skin, as if trying to work out its secrets. Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).
From the same book, dissection of the peritoneum in three acts. In the third figure, the character holds in his teeth his own greater omentum to show the vascular reticulum.
Spiegel and Casseri, De humani corporis fabrica libri decem (1627).
Spiegel and Casseri, Ibid.
In these écorchés etched prints, there already was a difference between male and female figures. Male subjects were used to illustrate the muscular system, while women very often exhibited internal organs, and since the earliest representations they were almost always pregnant. The visible fetus inside the female womb was meant to underline that the woman’s primary function was to generate life, while on the other hand male écorchés were presented in manly poses, enhancing their physical strenght.
Spiegel and Casseri, Ibid.
A muscular male body poses for a plate actually describing a cranial dissection. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres by C. Estienne (1545).
From the same volume, the anatomy of the intestines is baroquely inscribed within a Roman warrior’s armor.
The unveiling of the uterus, a symbolic mise-en-scene of denudation. Carpi commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super Anatomia Mundini (1521).
Pietro Berrettini’s gravida stands graceful and thin, displaying her reproductive apparatus (1618).
As can be seen in the following prints, female subjects by the middle of XVI century already began to show a certain sensuality, as they abandon themselves in poses that in other contexts would be deemed indecent or obscene. Here the artist pushed things even further, creating anatomical versions of well-known clandestine erotic prints, faithfully copying the characters’ postures — but “flaying” them according to the anatomical tradition, thus ironically dampening the scene.
Woman holding two twins by their placentas. Inspired by an erotic print by Perino Del Vaga. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres by C. Estienne (1545).
From the same book, a pregnant woman exhibiting the reproductive apparatus. The bedroom context gives an explicit erotic nuance to her pose.
Another illustration inspired by an erotic print by Perino Del Vaga (see below).
Here is the “forbidden” model for the previous print. (G.G. Caraglio, Giove e Antiope, from Perino del Vaga).
We should not forget that certain anatomical prints were hiding another intent — definitely more mysoginistic: they were meant to deny and unmask the woman’s charm. All her sex appeal, all her tempting beauty is neutralized through the exhibition of her entrails.
Memento by Tarchetti comes to mind:
When I kiss your perfumed lips,
Dear girl, I cannot forget
That a white skull is concealed underneath.
When I press your charming body to mine,
Forget I cannot, dear girl
That a skeleton is hidden beneath.
And engrossed by the horrendous vision,
Wherever I may touch, or kiss, or place my hands
I feel protruding the cold bones of death.
According to Baudrillard (Seduction, 1979), man has always had control over concrete power, while the female in time appropriated the power on the unconscious. And the latter is far more important than the former: here lies the origin of this male obsession, the sense of impotence before the force of symbol the woman holds. With all his violent wars and his virile conquests, man is still seduced and subjugated with no escape.
He then resorts to the final solution: frustrated by a mystery he cannot unveil, he ends up denying it ever existed in the first place.
Ecce mulier! Here is the much dreamt-of female, who makes men lose their mind and engage in sinful acts: just a bunch of disgusting organs and guts.
Valverde, Anatomia del corpo humano (1560).
The mise-en-scene of the obscene
Some XVI Century prints were assembled with different hinged flaps, so that the reader could lift them and remove the various layers from the subject’s body, discovering the anatomy in an active way. The following image, which first appeared in 1570 and was then reprinted many times, is an example of these precursors of pop up books; it was devised specifically for barbers-surgeons (the man holds his hand in a bowl of hot water to bulge the veins in his arm before undergoing a bloodletting), and consists of four flaps the reader could lift to see internal organs.
Anatomical decomposable Venuses were just a three-dimensional version of this kind of sheets. Students could disassemble the organs, study their morphology and position without resorting to a real corpse.
If from the very beginning ceroplastic was meant as a substitute or complement for dissection (a great educational tool for doctors and anatomists who often lacked fresh bodies), these wax statues were also one of the first examples of an anatomical show open to common people. Real dissections were already an instructive entertainment for high society, who willingly paid the admission ticket for the anatomy theater usually built near the University. But the collection of anatomical waxes inside the La Specola Museum in Florence, desired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was accessible even to nonspecialists.
As an enlightened sovereign and science enthusiast, he realized, much before other kings, how important the scientific culture was and how it should be available to everybody. […] There were different schedules for learned people and for the populace: the latter could visit the Museum from 8am to 10am “provided that clean clothes are worn”, then leaving room “at 1pm… to intelligent and studious people”. Even if this distinction sounds a bit offensive now, it is clear how opening the Museum to the big public was innovative for the time.
(M. Poggesi, La collezione ceroplastica del Museo La Specola, in Encyclopaedia anatomica, 2001)
Anatomical waxes therefore, besides being a study tool, also relied on other, more hidden fascinations which successfully drew masses of visitors from all classes, becoming a must-see during Grand Tours.
Just like ancient etchings, these wax scultpures show a stereotypical representation of the female body — passive, subdued to the anatomist who is (presumably) dissecting her, the Venus is often with child; her face is never flayed and looks, on the contrary, quite seductive. The male figure is yet again used mainly to illustrate the skeletal-muscular apparatus, the blood and lymphatic vessels, and shows no trace of the sensuality of its female counterpart.
Eros, Thanatos and cruelty
The Florence anatomical Venuses could not fail to excite the interest of the Marquis de Sade.
The Marquis first wrote about them, in the discreet literary style of a tourist, in his Voyage d’Italie; he mentioned them again in Juliette, where his depraved heroine rejoicingly discovers five small tableaux by Zumbo depicting different phases of putrefaction. But it is in the 120 Days Of Sodom that the waxes are used in their most Sadeian dimension: here a young girl is brought inside a room containing several anatomical Venuses, and is forced to choose her favorite way to be killed and dismembered.
Sade’s clear gaze recognized the dark side of these extraordinary works of scientific art: their cruel and disturbing eroticism. Undoubtedly, their seraphic, sometimes almost provocative faces suggest an undisguised pleasure in being torn apart and offered to the public; and at the same time these three-dimensional models make the surreal contradiciton of the écorchés even clearer, as they remain alive in spite of the mortal wounds.
One can argue whether Susini and his other imitators were in fact really aware of this aspect of their work, which is nonetheless not so secondary; but part of these sculptures’ charm surely comes from their sensual ambiguity.
Bataille noted (The Tears of Eros, 1961) that from the moment men became aware of their own death, burying the dead and establishing funeral rites, they also began depicting themselves, in cave paintings, with fully-erect genitals; another proof of how much death and sex are closely related, as opposites which often melt into each other.
Anatomical Venuses, in a sense, perfectly encapsulate all this complexity. They are splendid and precious tools for scientific enquiry, wonderful art objects, mysterious and provocative symbols; with their mix of innocence and cruelty they seem to relate, still today, the intricate vicissitudes of human desire.
For an introduction to the history and artistic relevance of anatomical Venuses, a great starting point is Ode to an Anatomical Venus, by Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy (who is also the author of some of the photos in this post).
Here is the page dedicated to anatomical waxes on the Florence Natural History Museum‘s website.