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EXPLICATOR CHIRURGIAE Since, in early modern Europe, dissections are affairs of the night, our story opens under cover of darkness: late in the evening, long into January 1544, as, through rain now turning to sleet, two figures edge down an unlit Arno River embankment. Despite the cumbersomeness of their cargo and the precariousness of foothold on the slick riverbank, our figures descend noiselessly to an awaiting barge, hurriedly setting a makeshift coffin down on its planks. The vessel’s departure is swift, also silent, for by order of Secretary Marzio de Marzii, acting on behalf of the Duke of Tuscany himself, its journey from Florence to Pisa must be covert in every sense. What calls for such secrecy, what the crude chest contains, is nothing more than a nameless human cadaver, procured stealthily from the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and now on its clandestine way to the Pisan Monastery of San Francesco. In his letter of instruction, written from Pisa on 22 January 1544 to the trusted intermediary Pier Francesco Ricci, Secretary Marzio de Marzii actually ordered two corpses, “persons young rather than old” would be preferred: “…let them be enclosed in two cases and sent as quickly as possible down the Arno by barge or boat. This matter ought to be handled by you secretly, both the procurement of those bodies and their dispatch, and let them be delivered to the convent of San Francesco of the conventual friars where everything will be arranged.”1 Curiously, what is handled surreptitiously one day calls, on another day, for the attention of all onlookers, for the lone cadaver now passing silently 63 4 Anatomy as Speech Act Vesalius,Descartes,Rembrandt or,The Question of “the animal”in the Early Modern Anatomy Lesson dawne mccance under the Ponte Vecchio—the only corpse that could be had, and a defective one at that, without all its ribs intact—will soon be at the centre stage of a theatrical performance: the first public anatomical demonstration to be given at the University of Pisa by the renowned visiting professor, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. Such is the paradox of early modern anatomy. On the one hand, in the years between 1540 and 1640, “the period of the discovery of the Vesalian body,”2 the opening of the human corpse for dissection and the mapping of its interior terrain were heralded as new modes of scientific investigation offering extraordinary possibilities, equal to “the triumphant discoveries of the explorers, cartographers, navigators, and early colonialists.” It was a project “conducted with boundless optimism.”3 On the other hand, although the dissection of human cadavers was introduced to the Christian West by 1400, with a post-mortem dissection recorded as early as 1286,4 two centuries had to pass before the practice could be freed from religious and Galenic teachings that prompted revulsion at the display and dismemberment of a corpse. The unease persisted into the period of the so-called discovery of the Vesalian body, when “the procurement and cutting open of cadavers for scientific (thus profane) purposes, and the inevitable delay in burial of the dead that followed, were [still] considered religiously and anthropologically dangerous acts.”5 The university—then as now, a strange nexus of ecclesiastical, political and juridical forces— positioned itself shrewdly on both sides of the issue at once. As the place where dissection was carried out and controlled, the university maintained an official and visible deference to traditional authority and public sensibility —properly discreet in its procurement of corpses, ostensibly upholding a kind of repression of human anatomies. At the same time, as a complex system of strategies and spaces through which the human body was being transformed into a new object of knowledge, the university was functioning as what Foucault called a body politic, “a set of material elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communication routes and supports”6 for the exercise of an emerging, peculiarly modern, bio-power. As distinct from interdiction or prohibition, this bio-power “displays itself most” when it “hides itself best,”7 precisely by working through discursive fields and institutional architectures that we tend to think of as exempt from power’s domain. In the late-night scene of the furtive passing of a body under a bridge, we open onto the story of bio-power as among modernity’s “most hidden things.”8 64 Dawne McCance Central to this story is the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius...


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