Scoop Review of Books

Sinew and skin


Encyclopaedia Anatomica (Know thyself) by Monika von During and Marta Poggesi; published by Taschen, distributed in New Zealand by New Holland Publishers ($39.99))
Review by Nikki Slade Robinson

Muscle and bone. Sinew and skin. Skeletal and semi-skeletal figures. Sections of bodies and organs. Views inside the human body. Is it art or science? Is it sinister and macabre or enlightening and educating? Look at the tableau depicting the plague – macabre? Or the page showing details of the inner ear – enlightening? Take your pick.

Encyclopaedia Anatomica was created by Marta Poggesi and Monika van During. From 1969 to 2009 Poggesi, a biologist, was the curator of La Specola, an eccentric museum in Florence, doing research as well as managing and cataloguing the collection. Van During is Professor Emeritus of Neuroanatomy and the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

The book contains a photographic collection of highly detailed waxworks of human anatomy from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is no Madame Tussaud’s line-up of slickly-clothed stars and identities. Rather it’s a graphic portrayal of body parts and semi-dissected figures. The full collection of waxworks is housed in Italy’s La Specola, These works were created by various artists, most over a 60-year span. In 1771, the vision of Grand Duke of Tuscany was to ‘bring together all the scientific collections from the galleries’ in the region. Over time the works were amalgamated, and opened to the general public. There were separate viewing times for the lower classes (‘providing they were cleanly clothed’) and the elite. Despite this segregation, it was still groundbreaking to allow the lower classes any level of access to such a venue.

But the works were more than a public display – they were important in the study of medicine and surgical advances. A working partnership between childbirth specialist Giuseppe Galletti and wax modeller Giuseppe Ferrini, for example, saw many works created to ‘demonstrate different birth procedures, both normal and with complications’. Before the availability of the wax models, anatomical teaching required corpses to be exhumed, an unpleasant job compared to studying a non-decomposing recreation.

Each model is very realistic – reminiscent at times of what could be the subject of forensic examination. While a lot of the detailed knowledge of techniques used to create these works has been lost – ‘each wax modeller also had his own technique…they were not keen to have their methods spread’ — there is still fascinating description of the methods of colouring and layering the wax and other materials. More gruesome is the number of corpses required for reference in the creation of a single life-like model, particularly if a dissection was involved. How many? Over 200! The lack of preserving or freezing at the time meant corpses quickly decomposed.

The book opens with an interesting history of the collection, followed by sections that focus on different parts of the body such as bones and joints, muscles, heart and blood circulation. All text, including captions, is presented in English, then German, and finally French. This approach makes for a rather weighty tome of almost 600 pages. The book is hardcover, and 195mm x 140mm: quite a small dimension given its visual nature. It is beautifully produced but would work even better in a larger art-book sized format.