Death Stories: Slice, Part 5

If you wanted to be resurrected in the end time, Church dogma used to say, you need a complete body. Whatever might be found inside was "God's province." Doctors concentrated instead on herbal medicine and other strategies that didn't require much knowledge of anatomy. Barbers handled the lancing of boils and the bleeding with leeches. Medical schools taught anatomy as a theoretical subject, if at all.

Then, in the 13th century, legal systems in Europe began to sanction autopsies to determine causes of death. Some universities began to include anatomical demonstrations using the corpses of criminals. Typically, the authorities preferred to give over foreign criminals, since their families would not be around to protest.  Jews and other marginalized people were also likely candidates.  Complex regulations surrounded these demonstrations; sometimes even the number of masses to be said for the deceased was mandated by law. In a room stocked with rosewater and incense, a professor might read from a text while a junior academic pointed to the relevant body parts with a wand. Neither handled or cut the cadaver; that was still the job of a barber—a grotesque rendition of "Those who can’t do, teach." At some universities, only medical students and doctors were allowed in; elsewhere, dissections were open to anyone who could pay the admission fee. Spectators might bring spices to cover the smell; or they might buy oranges from the vendors.

In the Renaissance, the Church, which had previously leaned toward the position that dissection ruined one’s chances of being bodily resurrected on judgment day, shifted toward the idea that dissection could only enhance human appreciation of God’s handiwork. This new idea infected the arts.  Painters flayed cadavers to study their muscles and thereby depict the exterior of the body with greater verisimilitude. Leonardo da Vinci began his studies of anatomy by observing such flayings, but eventually he delved deeper, exploring beyond painterly questions.  He boasted that he had whittled away “more than ten” cadavers just to diagram the circulatory system--no single body lasted long enough.  He claimed that his drawings, which included such innovations as the cross-section, were more useful for learning the body than watching a dissection oneself, because a dissection destroys some structures in probing for others.  Having investigated the digestive system, he concluded that “men and animals are only a track, a conduit for food, a burial for other birds, an inn for the dead.”

Great confusion results from the combination of tissues, with veins, arteries, nerves, sinews, muscles, bones, and blood which, of itself, tinges every part the same colour. And the veins, which discharge this blood, are not discerned by reason of their smallness. Moreover integrity of the tissues, in the process of the investigating the parts within them, is inevitably destroyed, and their transparent substance being tinged with blood does not allow you to recognise the parts covered by them, from the similarity of their blood-stained hue; and you cannot know everything of the one without confusing and destroying the other.
-- Leonardo da Vinci

For the anatomical knowledge of his rival Michaelangelo, Leonardo had only scorn. He claimed Michaelangelo’s figures were muscled like “bags of nuts.” Nonetheless, Michaelangelo himself performed dissections, and a leading anatomist of the day recruited him to illustrate a text. That assignment didn’t work out; nor did his ambition to illustrate a treatise on proportion by Durer. But he did help to found a school for artists where anatomy was a required subject.

Michaelangelo: Bags of Nuts

The most influential anatomist of the Renaissance was Andreas Vesalius. His extraordinary texts are filled with innovative cross-references and illustrations—some possibly provided by Titian—but his real accomplishment was to expose the weaknesses in works by Galen and others by testing the received lore against actual bodies.

I am thinking of a great fellow, who was about as old as I am three hundred years ago, and had already begun a new era in anatomy. His name was Vesalius. And the only way he could get to know anatomy as he did, was by going to snatch bodies at night, from graveyards and places of execution. He could only get a complete skeleton by snatching the whitened bones of a criminal from the gallows, and burying them, and fetching them away by bits secretly, in the dead of night. Some of the greatest doctors living were fierce upon Vesalius because they had believed in Galen, and he showed that Galen was wrong. They called him a liar and a poisonous monster. But the facts of the human frame were on his side; and so he got the better of them. He had a good deal of fighting to the last. And they did exasperate him enough at one time to make him burn a good deal of his work. Then he got shipwrecked just as he was coming from Jerusalem to take a great chair at Padua. He died rather miserably.
-- George Eliot

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