- Theaters of Anatomy: Students, Teachers, and Traditions of Dissection in Renaissance Venice
In the late 1970s, anatomy emerged as a key discipline for unraveling the wider, social impact of the "New Science" in Renaissance Europe. What was most curious about this "somatic turn" was that anatomy appealed to such a wide variety of contemporary disciplines beyond the circuit of professional historians of medicine. Widely influenced by Foucault and Bakhtin, art historians, intellectual historians, scholars of literature, and historians of philosophy turned to the body and those who disassembled it within the ornate structures of the anatomy theaters of Paris, Padua, Bologna, London, and Leiden, to discover, in the works of figures such [End Page 279] as Vesalius, Harvey, and Descartes, a new and exciting avenue for understanding a whole host of hitherto largely unrelated literary, social, and artistic practices: punishment, the carnival, gender, music, sexuality, performance, poetry, plays, crowds, spectacle—even sight, sound, and smell. The Renaissance anatomy theater, it seemed, catered for every taste.
Drawing on this tradition, but standing slightly to one side, Cynthia Klestinec's Theaters of Anatomy is a scrupulous, wide-ranging, and thoughtful exploration of the staging of Renaissance anatomy. It is also a meticulous revisionary study that boldly and (for the most part) triumphantly sets out to challenge a good many of the perceived ideas surrounding the study of Renaissance dissection and anatomization. Her book explores the practice and performance of anatomy in Padua between 1550 and 1620, a period when this Venetian city was the European epicenter for the study of the human body. Concentrating, in particular, on the figures of Andreas Vesalius, Guilio Casseri, Girolamo Fabrici, and Gabriele Falloppio, Klestinec sets out to reconstruct the microhistory of the texture of anatomical performance: studying its practitioners, participants, and its audience.
Klestinec is not concerned with retelling the story of who discovered what in the body interior. For her, Paduan anatomy is much more a means of understanding the ways in which a civic and academic institution operated. Hence, and crucial to her study and her method, her deployment of a rich array of primary sources, culled from Paduan and Venetian archives, contains detailed accounts (particularly from students) of what took place not only within the ritualized confines of the public anatomy theater, but also within the more inaccessible spaces of the private dissection.
The distinction between private and public is a key element in this revealing account. The story of anatomy as a public performance has become a familiar one, though Klestinec has uncovered a myriad of details that help us to better understand the appeal of Renaissance anatomy for a wider, nonprofessional audience. Much more difficult to appreciate—and where this book is so helpful—is the crucial importance of the private dissection, often instigated by students themselves, which operated at the very limits of legality. But in tracing the "traditions" of dissection at work in Renaissance Padua, Klestinec also reveals a pattern of tension: tension between the anatomists and their students, between what could be seen and what could be heard, between the various "nations" who made up the student body, and (most importantly) over what constituted the purpose of anatomy. Was anatomy primarily an instrumental craft, designed to explore the body's structure and morphology, and aimed mainly at medical professionals? Or was it, rather, a means of inculcating a philosophical and deeply contemplative habit of mind, informed by Renaissance humanism? Describing the anatomy theater of Fabrici, Klestinec writes, persuasively, that the latter question is just as important as the former, particularly in respect to public dissections. In the anatomy theater, students "learned how to behave with respect to their peers, their superiors, and the anatomized dead. The theater celebrated the ideals of silence, obedience, and acceptance of authority. . . . It played a part in a broader tale about growing up in the early modern period" (p. 122). Those of a more Foucauldian or Bakhtinian [End Page 280...