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  • The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini
  • Anita Guerrini
Rebecca Messbarger, The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Pp. xiii + 234. $35.00.

This gorgeously illustrated book details the life and, particularly, the work of Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714–1774). Morandi, one of many makers of anatomical waxes in eighteenth-century Europe, distinguished herself in two ways: she [End Page 329] was not only an artist but an accomplished anatomist, as her exquisitely detailed waxes displayed; and she was a woman in a field dominated by men. Rebecca Messbarger gives adequate consideration to both these aspects, and moreover vividly portrays the scientific, political, and religious contexts of eighteenth-century Bologna, where Morandi spent her life.

While historical writing on eighteenth-century Italy has increased manyfold over the last two decades, it still lags far behind the historiography of Britain or France, and Messbarger’s work is therefore a welcome addition to our knowledge. She begins her story around 1700, when Bologna’s university, renowned throughout Europe during the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, had noticeably declined and with it the student population that helped to support the city financially as well as upholding its cultural eminence. Messbarger traces the impact of two Bolognese men, General Luigi Ferdinando Marsili and Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740. Marsili bypassed the university to found the Institute of Sciences in 1714, in which he united an Academy of Science with the existing Clementina Academy of Art (such a “General Academy” had been proposed to Louis XIV’s minister Colbert fifty years earlier, but was ultimately declined). Lambertini supported Marsili in his disputes with city fathers and used his considerable political power and patronage to promote the institute. Anatomy was of particular interest, and an anatomy museum was one of the centerpieces of the new institute.

This anatomy museum, composed of wax figures, epitomizes for Messbarger the tension between art and science that is at the heart of anatomical waxes. She contrasts the moralizing artistic works of Ercole Lelli, who dominated the museum, with the waxworks of Morandi and her husband Giovanni Manzolini, which were intended for medical instruction. She finds an additional parallel between the highly symbolic yearly “Carnival Dissection” and the private anatomy school Morandi and Manzolini ran for medical students. Yet waxworks could not avoid being works of art, both in an aesthetic sense and also in the sense that they were necessarily interpretations of the physical evidence of the dissected body. In her justifiable eagerness to see Morandi in her rightful place as a woman of science, Messbarger sometimes overemphasizes the distance between science and art.

That Morandi was indeed a woman of science, one of a very small sorority in eighteenth-century Bologna, is without doubt after Messbarger’s thorough exposition. Although we know frustratingly little about Morandi’s background and education, Messbarger has scoured the available archival and published evidence to present a fully rounded portrait of a woman who was both learned and a skilled artisan. She makes particularly good use of Morandi’s detailed anatomical notebooks, which she correlates with the surviving waxes, reconstructing in riveting detail the processes and procedures of dissection and the reconstruction of the body in wax.

Morandi and Manzolini employed their waxes in their anatomical teaching. After Manzolini’s death in 1755, Morandi carried on their successful school and workshop alone. Messbarger offers a provocative and detailed account of Morandi’s famous life-size wax self-portrait, analyzing her multiple roles as anatomist, instructor, artisan, scholar, and, not least, as a woman. By portraying herself as a handsome and richly dressed woman, Morandi declared her social status and gender; by showing herself in the act of dissecting a human brain, she declared her intellectual and technical standing as very much the equal of her late spouse, whose portrait she also sculpted. In emphasizing Morandi as a professional, Messbarger tends to [End Page 330] gloss over what was after all a dual-career household with children; I would have liked to have read more about their domestic life and the household as laboratory...


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pp. 329-331
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