Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Raphael Cuir, The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism (Mellen Press, 2009)

Raphael Cuir, The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism: da Carpi, Vesalius, Estienne, Bidloo. Mellen Press, 2009. ISBN 0-7734-4657-5. 280 pp. Hbk. £89.

Reviewed by Danielle Farrar

[1]  The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed a renewed interest from both the popular and medical communities in classical anatomy as a means to better understand the human interior. Many texts were published during this time that would subsequently come to be regarded as paradigmatic anatomical ‘textbooks.’ The emergence of these ‘textbooks’ altered the manner in which the world would teach, study, and altogether comprehend human anatomy. Three of these major texts include Jacopo Berengario da Carpi’s Commentaria and the Isagogœ breves (both texts are regarded as the one, with the ‘short introduction’ or Isagogoe breves included in 1522 as a supplement to the 1521 Commentaria); Charles Estienne’s De dissectione (1545); and, Andreas Vesalius’s Fabrica (1543). Like modern anatomical textbooks, these were all published with a combination of text and image. Their text functions in a (proto-) conventional format, discussing the body and passing instructions on how to accurately perform a dissection. Conversely, the images within each book do not conform to standard ‘textbook’ type. Instead of straightforward anatomical representations of the form and function of the human figure, the anatomical plates in these publications depict animated skeletons and écorchés and self-dissectors, among other unusual subject-objects. To amplify their artistic peculiarity, these subject-objects are infused with classicism and theology and are permeated with symbolism, analogy, eroticism, and eschatology – ideological elements that have less to do with the anatomy and physiology of the human form and more to do with the ontology of human life and the inevitabile fatum of human death.

[2]  In The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism (hereafter The Development) Raphael Cuir sets out to analyze these vastly understudied anatomical images with the refreshing eye of an art historian, rather than the (heretofore) typical perspectives of the scientific, anatomical, and even literary. Due to the fact that the aforementioned anatomical plates by da Carpi, Estienne, and Vesalius were published predominantly within the faculties of medicine and anatomy, these texts are often commentated on within those particular contexts. Cuir dedicates his first chapter to validating why these images (and texts) can, and should be, analyzed under a humanistic lens as well. He invests time in carefully explaining how these well-known anatomists were also devout humanists, all of whom received an education that advocated the essentiality of poetry, classicism, literature, rhetoric, music, and art; even though the plates were published to accompany medical texts, the images themselves are by no means confined to a medical context but are also representative of a Renaissance humanist desire to develop a keen knowledge and appreciation of classical antiquity.

[3]  The anatomical plates, then, are the products of multiple discourses, most obviously influenced by the fields of science and art; however, whilst Renaissance humanism was an intellectual movement that fostered the study of art, it generally worked against more ‘scientific,’ medieval faculties such as natural philosophy.  Cuir explains how these two faculties did in fact work together via an epistemic exchange due to the analogical relationship between the human body, or ‘the living artwork,’ and nature (44). Nature is the ultimate artist, and the human body is its greatest masterpiece; likewise, the human is also artist, producing artwork of the body in a lifelike manner, imitating nature. The natural philosophy, or ‘science,’ of the anatomical plates is explicated by the dual adoption of an aesthetic teleology by natural philosophers and artists who both sought to accurately define and depict the workings of nature. The cultural drive to know and portray the human interior as realistically as possible was equally important for artists ‘to create’ as it was for anatomists ‘to heal’ (51).

[4]  While aesthetic teleology assists in explaining the subject matter of the plates (realistic depictions of the human interior), teleological anatomy explains the unique portrayal of this particular subject matter. Teleological anatomy, according to Cuir, was one of the primary motivations for the plates, and this is due largely to two things: first, the Renaissance faculties of medicine and anatomy grew directly out of the classical didacticism of Aristotle, Galen, and Averroes. Classical anatomists stressed the essentiality of the form-function connection; they believed in showing the link between how a body part looks and what it does, because each part was designed with a purpose in mind. Renaissance anatomists took their cue from this and executed the same ideology in the plates, by showing the parts in action, rather than inanimate on a dissecting table. Second, the humanist conviction of Renaissance anatomists and artists was responsible for the symbological rhetoric and other ideological philosophy present.

[5]   While Renaissance anatomists were deeply influenced by their classical predecessors, the Christian implications of Renaissance anatomy cannot be denied. The anatomical plates are permeated with classical ideals and symbolism, but they also contain facets of a Christian nature, primarily their inexplicable eschatology: they are steeped in themes of death and finality. Christianity, especially Medieval and Renaissance, catechized and guided people on how to die well and prepare for death and the afterlife (most famously in the 15th century Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying). Besides the fact that eschatological characters – animated skeletons and écorchés – are principle matters of the plates, oftentimes they are posited in eschatological contexts: a graveyard near a tomb or mausoleum, in a barren landscape or a city of ruins; they contain props such as axes, spades, daggers, and, in some cases, the subject’s flayed skin. To attempt to explain these themes of death, Cuir compares the plates with the medieval la Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) convention since the two are similar in that they both personify death. At first glance, the link between la Danse Macabre and the plates appears to be direct, but Cuir ultimately believes that there is little direct influence. The artistic representation of death personified is not exclusive to European culture, but has also turned up in classical and Eastern artifacts and artwork.

[6]  The animated skeletons and écorchés of the Renaissance were produced out of a cultural teleology that emphasized the form-function connection of the body where God and the soul were the purposes behind the design of the body, and the body and the soul are intrinsically conjoined. In the seventeenth century, human anatomy became ‘disenchanted’ with the bifurcation of the body and the soul due to the philosophical rationalism of René Descartes (156).The previous hylozoism of the Renaissance was disintegrated; the body was only considered in terms of its organic quality and had no need for post-mortem animation. Only the soul would continue with life after death. Descartes purported that the body was merely a material object whose main function was that of a machine, capable of breaking down and dying; inside the body was encased the mind (i.e. the soul), an immaterial object. This philosophical dualism greatly influenced anatomical images and commenced what Cuir refers to as Cartesian anatomy. The dissected corpse was no longer perceived as still being imbued with the animation of the soul, but was seen strictly as an organic machine. Anatomical images after the influx of Descartes took the lifelike portrayal of the dissected body to an even more realistic level. Images now began to show the dissected corpse as just that: a dissected corpse on a dissecting table. In the previous centuries, anatomical images contained subjects that seemed to have a direct dialogue with the viewer. With Cartesian anatomy, the personification of death diminished, and the subjects were transformed into silent objects.

[7]  Raphael Cuir’s The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism is a pioneer in its analysis of anatomical plates. Cuir’s artistic devotion to the plates is coveted in the discourse community of Renaissance anatomy, which has received much attention in the last several years. The Development is audience-specific and appears to have been written principally for the scholarly art historian; because of this, its language is not widely accessible, and the non-art historian reader will be faced with a difficulty in being able to fully comprehend Cuir’s arguments and more subtle points without doing external research. The Development is one of the first to explore in-depth the motivations of the anatomical plates, and Cuir’s passionate interest in this takes the reader on a scientific and artistic journey from classical Greece to seventeenth-century France. He is exceptionally thorough in considering multiple perspectives and consistently supports his arguments via interdisciplinarian epistemes: he brings in sources of antiquity as well as drawing from modern ones, perhaps the most interesting being Foucauldian similitudes. Overall, The Development is an endlessly interesting proposition that the anatomical plates are the result of multifarious discourses; while their medical context is clear, their visual rhetoric is a product of classical ideals, Medieval functionalism, and Renaissance humanism, an artistic combination that makes the plates some of the most fascinating specimens of Renaissance art.

August 2010    

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