Rob Hardy: The Lady Anatomist


Rob Hardy



In the gothic thriller "The Mysteries of Udolpho" (1794), the mysteries consist of distinguishing the real from the supernatural, and one of the scary visions seen by the heroine Emily was a body in grave clothes, being eaten by worms. She really saw it, and the author reflects, "On such an object, it will be readily believed, that no person could endure to look twice." Is it a horrific supernatural vision, or is it a mere waxwork?  


If you didn''t look twice, you could not tell, because waxworks were of a high degree of artistry at the time. In the 18th century, Anna Morandi Manzolini made waxworks not to scare people but to educate them in anatomy. Her spectacular creations were in demand in palaces all over Europe, and while she got some acclaim for her work at the time, her position as a woman without formal education meant she did not get all the recognition she deserved. Though she amplified and corrected the work of more famous anatomists of the time, like Valsalva and Malpighi, her name is not in the anatomy hall of fame today. "The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini" (University of Chicago Press) by Rebecca Messbarger offers an appreciation of this remarkable woman, and gives lots of lovely pictures of the anatomical waxworks that made her famous. 


Bologna, Italy, was in the 18th century a center for anatomical studies. There Anna Morandi was born in 1714. We know almost nothing of her education; how she learned to use Latin or to write scientific treatises with exactitude is a mystery. It is only upon her marriage at 26 years old to Giovanni Manzolini that she comes into view. She had been trained as an artist, and became an assistant to her husband who was an anatomic modeler. Manzolini had had a falling out with his supervisor, Ercole Lelli, who made anatomical wax figures for the Anatomy Museum of Bologna. Part of the problem may have been that Lelli was taking credit for Manzolini''s work, and part was a difference in philosophies about what purpose the modeling served.  


Lelli''s spectacular figures of flayed men, showing muscles and deeper structures beneath, are still to be seen within the University of Bologna. The figures stand in classical attitudes, much like the pictures in the books by Vesalius. Not only were they artistically posed, they were made to imbue moral lessons; Lelli created Adam and Eve in wax, both looking dejected, and a series of life-sized male and female figures each with deeper musculature shown, finally in mere skeletons, and in case you missed the message, the skeletons hold scythes. 


It was clear that the series led up to this "memento mori," but there was another clash about such models regardless of the moral message that was to be taken away. Lelli''s figures for all their anatomical expertise were designed for the use of artists, making plain the muscle and bone that sculptors and painters needed to depict realistically. The models were not in the service of anatomy itself. Indeed, there was a great deal of argument and ill-feeling about whether the models represented art or science. But wax models were an efficient way to teach anatomy. They did not rot or stink or convey disease and lasted for centuries. The parts of a model could be laid out in the best way to distinguish them and their relationships. This was the sort of model that the husband and wife team made. It was a household business; there was still a stigma of dissecting the dead, and so the teaching of practical anatomy and surgery was not done in the university itself. The couple had a well-regarded anatomy school, and hundreds of cadavers would come into the home for their research. We don''t know, but this must have made for bizarre domesticity, as such quotidian activities as child-rearing and cooking had to go on, too. 


Anna Morandi began as an assistant to her husband, and became his equal. He died unexpectedly and she took over the business. It seems he may have been of a choleric disposition, and even when he was alive, she was the public face of their endeavors. She was a skilled anatomist; her expertise made her able confidently to demonstrate, for instance, that there were two posterior muscles attaching to the external ear, not three as the master of ear anatomy, Valsalva, had proposed. Her descriptions of anatomy were purely materialist and unmarred by her more famous predecessors and contemporaries who insisted on reminding their readers of the anatomical "signs of Almighty God" or how bodily intricacies show "His marvelous wisdom."  


Her models were just as good as her husband''s. Those making the Grand Tour would stop in for anatomical demonstrations, and she taught anatomy classes to those pursuing a medical career and to amateurs who just wanted the best offered in this branch of science. Byron visited on his tour, and was amazed to see "an anatomical gallery - where there is a deal of waxwork - in which the parts of shame of both sexes are exhibited to the life - all made and molded by a ''female'' professor..."  


Indeed, the anatomy of the male was an area of her especial expertise (unfortunately, most of her models relating to it are now gone), and Messbarger reflects on this woman as a master anatomist herself compared to the more traditional female role, "the docile anatomical object of discovery, the vacant-eyed cadaver at the center of the thronging theater, splayed and rent by the master anatomist." 


Anna Morandi was famous, and she received commissions from royalty such as Catherine the Great. Bologna valued her as showing how a woman might be part of the local renaissance and enlightenment; indeed, there was a tradition of "learned women" within Bologna. However, she still had much prejudice to overcome, some of it surprising to our way of thinking. For instance, anyone who regards her career can tell that she was part of the anatomical scientific effort, but her contemporaries would have regarded her at the lower level of artisan, providing her exceptional instruments to science but not being a scientist herself. She had financial struggles after the death of her husband, and was denied by the elite of Bologna a fair stipend for her services to the community or a position in an educational institution. 


Two and a half centuries after her death, her vibrant models can be found in many collections, but most shown in the amazing photographs here are at the University of Bologna. Anna Morandi could not find a position at the university, but her sculptures remain, strange and detailed and beautiful, illustrating the complex cosmos that all of us carry about with us every day without thinking. Anna Morandi had a new way to bring to light those hidden regions; Messbarger''s handsome book brings to light a previously hidden scientific personality. 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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