Modelling Femininity in Modern Medical Science
Studies of contemporary visualizations of the human body in medicine, especially in the Visible Human Project, are relevant here (Cartwright 1998; Marchessault and Sawchuk 2000). Lisa Cartwright examines this digital representation of a male and a female body, fully dissectible and available online, in terms of the history of medical anatomical representation, and she concludes that this contemporary female representation is something of an innovation in a long line of male body forms presented as the human norm. In many ways, Cartwright’s analysis contemporizes Londa Schiebinger’s (1987) work on early modern medical illustrations of skeletons. Schiebinger concludes that sexual difference becomes of interest to the newly forming profession of modern medical science just as women begin to make moves towards political emancipation in eighteenth – and nineteenth-century European society. Anatomical drawings, one of the mainstays of early medical education, began including female skeletons in order to prove that sexual difference goes down to the bone, effectively inscribing this as natural law (typically in terms of smaller brains and larger pelvises), from which political decisions and social norms based on gender discrimination were formed. These, in turn, effectively denied women a place in much of public life and almost completely prevented their equal participation in (especially scientific) knowledge formation. Schiebinger and Cartwright mark the medical image as both a material and materializing object that mediates patriarchal principles and women’s lives. When the principles of horror introduced above are applied to medical imaging, they reveal how modern medicine simultaneously constructs and violates the feminine.
Some of the earliest forms of the body-as-spectacle in modern Western medicine are the wax anatomical models developed in northern Italy and
used throughout Europe between 1800 and the early twentieth century as didactic tools for the growing profession of medicine. The Visible Human Project that dominates gross anatomy today stems directly from these earlier models. The female versions of the early modern models (including real hair and pearls) are also gore-filled Pandora’s boxes that mediate primal fears of death and disease with a particular mix of masculine desire and an emergent idealization of nature-as-woman. Below we explore these anatomical waxes as powerful visual materialization of the feminine as simultaneously deadly, desirous, and delivered into the Galilean universe of empirical rationality.
La Specola is considered the oldest public museum in the Western world and is located near, and connected via corridors to, the grand former Florentine home of the Tuscan dukes, Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi (where the ducal treasures were housed) and Palazzo Vecchio (the seat of the duchy’s government). It was inaugurated in 1775 as the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Nat – urale (the Imperial Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History) and, from its inception, was open to all classes of the public. The site not only provided a public science education but it also became an institute of formal study and experimentation. Several years before its inauguration, La Specola (as it became commonly known once its Osservatorio Astronomica was added in 1780) housed a ceroplastic studio (where wax anatomical models were made). Around 1790 scientific subjects began to be taught at the site, and a science library was established. In 1923 it became the University of Florence, and the museum now contains the university’s Department of Physics and Natural Sciences. Today only the zoological collection and anatomical ceroplastics remain at the original museum site (physics and astronomy were moved in 1869 to the nearby hill of Arcetri, where Galileo spent his last years).
The use of wax models for the study of the body can be dated back to the medieval period and Alessandra Giliani of Persiceto (d. 1326), who was a Bolognese prosecutor (an assistant to anatomists and surgeons whose business it was to dissect dead bodies in preparation for anatomical research or demonstration). However, wax modelling was not reserved to the emerging professions of medicine and modern science. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both created wax anatomical models of life-sized and “flayed” bodies (skin removed to reveal underlying muscle formations). This was a common activity for Renaissance artists in their attempt to passionately and realistically render the human body through stone and paint.
The collection of wax anatomical models at La Specola numbers in the hundreds and includes over a dozen full-scale models in various stages of dissection. The models are distributed throughout eight rooms and are in their
original display cases and their original positions. The display is designed to start with the more superficial and gross (in terms of gross anatomy) aspects of the body (stance and structure based on skeletal and muscular aspects) in Room і and then to proceed to the more mysterious and functional aspects of the body (nerves, the endocrine system, internal organs, and reproduction) through Rooms 2 to 8. All models are made of wax, and some have additions of hair and eyelashes to heighten the realistic effect. The models (both full-body ones and parts) are accompanied by framed pictures of the model surrounded by radiating lines pointing to numbers that correspond to a typography of parts and function kept in small drawers under the glass cases. The rooms were designed to be visual and interactive aids for teaching medicine and science. One of the models, a gynecological life-sized model, has removable parts.
The proximity of this museum-cum-classroom to the ducal residence, the seat of power, and the prestigious art collections signifies the growing importance of the empirical sciences. Galileo’s struggle with the papacy and eventual triumph over church dogma is beautifully illustrated in an altar-like room, La Tribuna di Galileo (the Tribute to Galileo), which is housed in the same building as is La Specola. Here we find visual testimony to the early modern scientist’s triumphant gaze in a fresco depicting his presentation of a telescope and his account of the moons of Jupiter to the papal court. It is significant that, set in the centre of this chapel-like room, is a statue of Galileo but with no reference to divine intervention. Here it is evident that scientific rationality has replaced Christian dogma as legitimate knowledge. Also obvious is the priority of sight in this emergence of empiricism as a new world order. Presaging the Cartesian theory of individuated mental awareness of the material world, Galileo’s success with the early telescope challenged the accepted and closely held Christian belief in the divine materialization of the world. Galileo was publicly and, most say, severely punished for the visual evidence he published in support of the Copernican theory of planetary movement (that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa) (Rowland 2001). By tracing the movement of the moons of Jupiter across the night sky with the scopic extension of the telescope, Galileo demonstrated that it was the earth that moved and not the sun. This was considered sacrilege as it went against scripture, which claimed that God created the earth with a sun that rose in the east and set in the west. This was the basis of Galileo’s being subject to the inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church beginning in 1633.
You can look through one of Galileo’s telescopes in the Museo di Storia della Scienza a Firenze (the Museum of the History of Science at Florence). In the rooms that follow you can also see a microscope that Galileo made (or had made). As a mathematician and astronomer, Galileo did little with the microscope and had little interest in biology and human anatomy. But for others, the invitation to enter the microscopic world lay wide open and was taken up: there is a surge in the publication of early modern medical texts in seventeenth-century Europe (Lippi and Baldini 2000, 419). It is also true that the visual entry into the body had started before the development and dissemination of the telescope and microscope, as is evident in the famous 1543 anatomical illustrations by the pathologist Andreas Vesalius in De humani corporis fabrica libri septum (Carlino 1999,1). Human dissection, despite Christian belief in the sacred status of the body (also God-given, like planetary bodies, and thus immutable), was well under way throughout the Christian empire at the time of Galileo’s trial. Here Galileo functions as a paradigmatic marker of a constellation of developments that represent a significant shift towards a visual mediation of the world—one that includes the human body as prima materia and that offers uncharted territory for a newly emerging medical scientific gaze.