Beyond the research I conducted in state and private archives across Bologna, of crucial importance for the development of my understanding of Anna Morandi’s anatomical studies was the course in human dissection I took at Washington University’s School of Medicine. Among the most poignant experiences I had in the anatomy laboratory was my dissection of the hand of a relatively young female cadaver.
The hand is a tendinous appendage with countless intricate structures and to dissect it requires both considerable force and delicacy. My research on Morandi’s study of anatomy focused extensively on her wax models of the hand, a primary leitmotif of her oeuvre. Her series showing progressively the superficial to deep structures of the hand, including the weave of nerves that enervate the fingers, begins with a pair of intact “feeling hands,” the left caressing a silk pillow while the right recoils in pain from sudden contact with a thorny branch. I could not help but recall these figures and Morandi’s evocative notes on the memory of pain and pleasure coded in the nerves and capillaries of the hand as I gripped my scalpel and made the first incision down the center line of the youthful index finger of the cadaver, whose shapely nails exhibited their care in life. After the face, the hands are frequently the most difficult subjects to confront emotionally in dissection lab. They retain the literal imprint of the individual and to dissect the hand, you must hold it in your own. From the outset of the anatomy course to this point, I had manually traversed the landscape of the body, from a hands-on understanding of the leg, to hands on foot, hands on arm, and now hands on hand. Of the numerous body parts I unwrapped and explored during the semester, the tactile memory of that hand is the most present in my own fingertips.
Gross Anatomy provided essential knowledge of the form and functions of the organs, parts and systems of the body for in my study of eighteenth-century anatomical science. However, an equal benefit of the course was the experience of dissection itself, the palpable knowledge of the body’s interior, the privilege of touching the cadaver, indeed of wearing its smell in the fibers of my scrubs and follicles of my hair. It is this experience that brought me closest to the subjects of my research: Anna Morandi, her husband Giovanni Manzolini and their rival Ercole Lelli, who cut open thousands of cadavers in their homes or primitive, makeshift laboratories without the benefit of modern methods of preservation. I was able grasp, at times literally, the vast imaginative leap the eighteenth-century artist-scientists made to create vibrant facsimiles of living anatomy from lifeless bodies.
About the author: Rebecca Messbarger earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her major research interests center on Italian Enlightenment culture, in particular the place and purpose of women in eighteenth-century and civic, academic and social life, and the advance of human anatomy via anatomical wax modeling during the age.
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