Science as Cinema: Technologies of Violence
Unfortunately, it is very difficult today for the public to gain access to this tribute to Galileo, which is housed apart from the collection of zoological models (including the anatomical wax models housed one story above). The anatomical display of La Specola has always been open to all classes of the public (as long as they were clean and presentable). As such, this part of the museum in particular, but also the emerging visual culture of modern science in general, opened the new empirical world to venues that lay beyond the traditionally closed doors of its courtly and priestly patrons (Findlen 1996). Following the practice of dramatically displaying dissections (which were performed in semi-public “theatres”), the models of La Specola formed a contemporary popular culture (Carlino 1999). And one of its main draws was the exciting journey into the mysterious terrain of the body’s interior, with the most exciting scene of all occurring in the gynecological room.
Ludmilla Jordanova, a critical museologist, has examined the models at La Specola in terms of gender stereotypes and the prevalent scientific epistemologies at the time they were created (1989). For example, she explores the concept of depth and how the relatively recent permission to enter the body surgically, dead or alive, relates to the overall project of science, whose purpose is to penetrate and reveal the secrets of Nature. Jordanova also points to the
“erotic charge” (55) of being able to undress the dissectible model through levels of dissection to reveal—a five-month-old fetus. It is no coincidence that, at this time and for some time afterwards, Nature is commonly captured in a nubile female form sporting a veil. “The Doll,” as La Specola’s most famous dissectible wax model is nicknamed, could easily stand in for Nature—as well as for Hadaly, for Eve, or for either of the Marias. She, and other female wax models at La Specola, also relate to the combination of desire for and dread of the feminine, and the battle between the scientific rationalization of life and chaos.
The museum creates a sort of reverse cinema: the picture doesn’t move but the people visiting it do. The eight anatomical rooms are designed to be walked through in a certain order: from the outward and visual manifestations of the human body (muscles and skeleton) to the inside and functional aspects (circulatory and nervous systems, organs, and reproductive systems). This distinction between the outer and the inner aspects of the body establishes a persistent distinction between form and function in modern medicine. It also draws significantly on dualistic and gendered assumptions regarding life and death, rationality and carnality, fear and desire, and presages Freud’s and Lacan’s interpretation of the primal scene as psychic catharsis and the formational, lim – inal divide between life and death.
Almost everyone walking into Room 1 (skeletal and muscle systems) recoils at the hyperrealism of the skinned models that surround and fill the room. Throughout the first three rooms of the intended route in this part of the museum, skulls perch atop rather elegant male figures that assume upright and animated postures. Other figures lounge horizontally, gentleman-like, in large glass cabinets with skinned faces resting on bony and sinewy hands and arms. The carefully crafted and coloured wax reveals every anatomical detail and provides a constant reminder of how time will treat our bodies—how death and decay will strip our mortality, layer by layer, to the bare bones.
But these models of the skeleton-as-gentleman that appear early in the display format are soon replaced by more horrific dissections in Rooms 4 and 5. Ironically, these later models have more to them than do the earlier ones in that they display the circulatory, nerve, and endocrine systems, so that you see the skeletal and muscular base covered with veins and arteries, glands and nerves (see fig. 13). Although this additional anatomical detail and more precise dissection draws us nearer to the moment of violation, or the cutting into the body, these figures remain more mechanistic and robot-like than organismic.
In contrast, a sense of edging towards the abyss is heightened as you move into Room 6, where three female models lie prostrate in their respective glass
Figure 13 “The Skinned Man,” wax anatomical figure from La Specola, Florence, Italy, c 1785 (with permission of Annette Burfoot).
cases. Up until now, no full figure has much in the way of skin or hair and, as such, appears less like a human than like some form of organic robot or cyborg. Inversely, the female figures have plenty of signs of what we hold to be human. Designed to exhibit the internal organs and the digestive system, the models of the young beautiful women with long plaited hair lie with their torsos cut from clavicle to pubis and with the innards pulled out and draped over both sides of nubile torsos (see fig. 14). Their heads are tilted backwards exposing the neck and inviting the viewer in, as if in a scene that crosses between Drac – ula and Jack the Ripper. The female models’ faces are masks of a sort of drugged rapture, their lips partially open and their beautiful but unfocused eyes gazing into the distance. Their hands are gracefully poised by their sides, with one of the figures holding her own plait.
This visual feast ofgore and the erotic continues. Down the corridor from this large room is a much smaller room, Room 8, on the way out of the museum (resonating with the Bataillian notion of the dreaded lower half of the body as fecal exit, among other things) (Bataille 1962). It is the gynecological room containing Clemente Susini’s “decomposable,” or modular, female figure: “The Doll” (see fig. 15). This is a hands-on model that is designed to have the front panel of the torso removed to reveal four successive levels of dissection until one reaches the deepest level, which includes an opened uterus with a five-
Figure 14 “Woman Holding Her Plait,” wax anatomical figure from La Specola, Florence, Italy, c 1785 (with permission of Annette Burfoot).
Figure 15 “The Doll,” wax anatomical figure from La Specola, Florence, Italy, c 1785 (with permission of Annette Burfoot).
Figure 16 “Dissected Uterus with Twins at Term,”wax anatomical figure from La Specola, Florence, Italy, c 1785 (with permission of Annette Burfoot).
month-old fetus inside. The model in its closed form is remarkably worked in that it is rendered as a beautiful and erotic female figure. The likeness is of a young woman, again supine, with her head tilted back and slightly to one side as if in some state of sexual ecstasy. Her young, firm breasts sport erect nipples, her lips are slightly parted, and she stares dreamily off into the distance. One leg is slightly bent, allowing us to look directly at her external genitals (rendered complete with pubic hair). This model is normally displayed closed, in its erotic rather than in its horrific form. The horrific is reserved for The Doll’s surroundings.
The “Medical Venus,” as she is also known, is surrounded by full-sized models of female uteri (heavily pregnant in most cases) with large amputated thigh stumps framing the external genitalia and the dissected womb. Skin, fat, and muscle are peeled back like a huge orange to reveal either a distended pregnant uterus or a well-developed fetus inside (see fig. 16). There are also cabinets containing a large collection of fetuses removed from the uterus in all stages of gestation (although the earlier models illustrate homunculism— fully formed miniature humans—rather than embryology as it is understood today). There is also a choir of dissected newborns, almost all male and positioned in a baby Christ-like pose with little arms reaching outwards to embrace and bless and with a slightly tilted head gazing down knowingly and forgiv-
“Beribboned Penis,” wax anatomical figure from La Specola, Florence, Italy, c 1785 ^ (with permission of Annette Burfoot).
ingly on the observer and the doll. Within this womb-like, small, and packed room, any mystery of anatomical femininity is exposed: there are no surprises left and the mystery of life itself softly glows in waxy realism that both shocks with the fear of death and delights with sexualized dissection. And off in a corner of the gynecological room is a beribboned phallus—a large penis separate from any other part of the male genitalia with a little bow wrapped around its base (see fig. 17). It lies at the foot-end of The Doll, near her genitalia, and serves as a phallic pointer within a patriarchal display of curiosity and fetish.