La Specola 6
I have always been fascinated by the human body and the ways in which it has been represented historically in both anatomical art and medical science. The picture of humanity that emerges from a study of bodily representation is one of fantasy and pathos. While actual human bodies are subject to disease, dissolution and death, we continue to try to overcome the limitations of biology in fantasies of transcendence, whether these be predicated on more and more extreme medical interventions into the human body or on developing virtual bodies which might allow us to become undying gods. The desire to transcend the limits of the biological body and to become one with (a) God, or, indeed, to become a god oneself has been constant throughout western history and reappears, albeit in transmuted form, in contemporary cyber-discourse and biomedical engineering.
Throughout western history the human body has had a wide range of ideological and philosophical meanings; in Greek and Roman art, for example, the male body has symbolised potency and political power. Where women’s bodies were earth-bound and corrupt, Greek male bodies, in imagination and art if nowhere else, transcended the boundaries of materiality to symbolise the higher realm of reason or soul. Similarly, in Renaissance art the male nude signified public virtues, while the female nude signified sensuality and the realm of private erotic pleasure. However, whatever the fantasy, the actual biological body imaged by art and worked upon by medical science is mortal and it may be that, irrespective of our fantasies of transcendence, finitude is a crucial condition of being human.
My grandfather had been a doctor and when he died had left me a collection of his old turn of the century medical texts. I looked through them for hours, fascinated with the illustrations of human anatomy and with the descriptions of various diseases and the effects they had on the human body. I gazed at flayed bodies, at the muscles of the neck, at the veins and tendons that looked somewhat like knotted ropes or twisty snakes of pasta noodles. Amazing what lies hidden beneath the skin. I was particularly interested in the ways in which the skinless human body was displayed: how was the body positioned? What did the arrangement of the limbs signify? I found these illustrations very poignant and initially somewhat disturbing.
Upon seeing the reclining wax anatomical models of Clemente Susini located in Florence’s La Specola museum, I was very taken by the pathos and fragility of the human body as there represented. In these life size wax figures, with their ivory or flayed skin, carefully arranged hair or veined baldness, and seductive recumbent poses, every detail of the human body has been painstakingly recreated. So compellingly realistic are these human surrogates that they almost seem to breathe and live.