Understanding the Renaissance Body
When looking at the Renaissance we must keep in mind that the beliefs of the time differ from our understanding of the world today. In the next few paragraphs we will explore the Renaissance body, the pursuit of understanding anatomy and the theater of anatomy.
The Renaissance was a time of enlightenment and pursuit of knowledge. During the Renaissance the pursuit of knowledge of the anatomy gained importance. This pursuit saw no social boundaries; everyone, no matter their social standing, was intrigued and affected by this new exploration of the human body. As explained by Jonathan Sawday in The Body Emblazoned: “It is perhaps the very impossibility of gazing within our own bodies which makes the sight of the interior of other bodies so compelling. Denied direct experience of ourselves, we can only explore others in the hope that this other might also be us.”4 Unlike our purely scientific view of the anatomy today, cosmology, theology and theunderstanding of the soul were essential in the pursuit of anatomical research in the Renaissance.
Firstly, we will illustrate Renaissance beliefs of the body through the lens of cosmology. The stars were seen as the only regular and ordered system within nature. The rigor observed in the sky helped decipher the disorder of terrestrial life. Navigation, time, a person’s fate or health, are a few examples of human conditions depicted by the movement of the planets and the formation of the constellations. The stars contained the answers to our mortal questions. Furthermore, the significance of celestial movement extended to the Renaissance views on anatomy. The body was seen as a microcosm of the cosmos, encapsulating the regularity in the sky. For example, a doctor would refer to the zodiac signs to prescribe certain therapies to his patients whose fate and demeanor was predetermined by their constellation.
Secondly, the Renaissance body had a theological importance. Such a complex and mysterious system, as that of the stars, must have been touched by a divine hand during their creation. The same deduction can be made about human anatomy, seeing as it is a microcosm of God’s work. This point is further illustrated by Sawday: “The human body expressed in miniature the divine workmanship of God, and that its form corresponded to the greater form of the macrocosm.”4 Viewing the body as a divine creation makes it a sacred entity. The pursuit of anatomical knowledge, through dissection, then becomes a religious ceremony. A poetic and lyrical ceremony surrounds these dissections with religious implications.
The Theater of Anatomy
An important moment in the Renaissance in terms of anatomical research was the modernity of Vesalius and his theater of anatomy. In the pre-Rennaissance, theories of anatomy were based on Galen, a Roman physician, and his discoveries. These theories were universally accepted and the dissection was meant to prove the written word. “Even when the text diverged from the body before them, that misinformed, though accepted text, was understood to be correct. The seemingly anomalous corpse was the recipient of the authorial word, and was made to exemplify it.”3 On the other hand, Vesalius viewed the body as a container of knowledge. He also believed the written word should not be used as an instruction manual when approaching dissection. In his theater he was both lecturer and dissector. “He read from the text, but more importantly he was able to revise the textual authority as the dissection disagreed with it.”3
Dissections were a means to gain knowledge and make new discoveries. As previously mentioned, the body was a mystical construct that required a sensitivity towards the lyrical arts in trying to understand it. This was a time when cause and effect was not the natural thought process, and could therefore not be used in the anatomical discoveries being made. “The body, despite all attempts at poetic deconstruction, was still secret”.4 The body was like a territory waiting to be concurred; a territory whose fruitful, lush ecosystems contained the secrets to cotton, spice, silk…Anatomists became explorers, and organs, their unchartered territory. Once an organ was discovered, the anatomist had the honor of naming his new found land (e.g. Gabriele Falloppio).1
Previously to Vesalius’ theater, public dissections were loud, carnivalesque gatherings. Vesalius’ modernity narrowed his audience to professors, students and other invited guests from the academic realm. The audience adopted a code of conduct and decorum within the theater. Poetry and music were seamlessly integrated in the ceremony, creating an impactful instructive ambience. Vesalius’ theater was a tactile learning environment unlike previous anatomy theaters which relied on an auditory experience. Students were encouraged to actively participate by touching organs and feeling their inherent significance.
The Role of the Modern Anatomist
As we began our adventure with this final phase of the project, we decided to take a similar approach to the renaissance anatomist. The body of man for them was an emblem created by the hands of God. The body was a sacred mystery to which they could not comprehend systemically. The choice of dissecting a machine in our case became clear when we realized that although we are creators of machines, their mechanisms still remain mysterious. Exposing the innards of a body conjures up even more questions of its system rather than revealing the answers. Even in the day and age of the machine, their world is not as transparent as we assume.
By taking the machine apart, piece-by-piece, we begin to grasp an idea of the mechanism behind it and how it might function as a whole. One advantage of observing the machine alive was that we could potentially understand its mechanism when taken apart. Our projections demonstrate the machine in its living state until we symbolically “cut the cord.” Each piece was meticulously dismembered for individual observation. The entire process of the dissection took 30 minutes. Our presentation was the projection of films showing the machine functioning when it was alive juxtaposed with a film of its dissection and ultimate death. The internal organs were laid out on the death bed, against the backdrop of the projections.