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Skeleton of a boy sitting on the 'D' of 'Dream', from Francesco Bertinatti, Elementi di anatomia fisiologica applicata alle belle arti figurative (Turin, 1837-39).  Artist: Mecco Leone. Lithograph
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Show-off Cadavers

The emergence of anatomical illustration in the period 1500-1750 coincided with a larger phenomenon, a new definition of personhood that was performed at court, in salons, coffeehouses, country estates, theaters, marketplaces, and at court. Inevitably anatomists took up, commented on, and played with, the contemporary obsession with self-fashioning and individuality—it was an era of manners, wit, foppishness, and coquetry. In the works of Giulio Casserio, John Browne and Pietro da Cortona, the illustrated anatomy book is a stage featuring posing, prancing cadavers. Animated with an exuberant vitality, the corpses perform an anatomical show for the reader’s gaze.

A dissected man shows the viewer his innards, cropped, from Giulio Casserio, Tabulae Anatomicae (Venice, 1627). Copperplate engraving. Artist: Odoardo Fialetti.
A woman shows the viewer her womb, which is dissected so the flaps look like flower petals. Cropped, from Giulio Casserio, De formato foetu... (Frankfurt, 1631). Copperplate engraving. Artist: Odoardo Fialetti.
A cadaver shows his dissected mouth, ribs and spine. Cropped from  Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, Tabulae anatomicae... (Rome, 1741). Copperplate engraving.

A dissected woman wears a peasant’s hat. Cropped, from Giulio Casserio, Tabulae Anatomicae (Venice, 1627). Copperplate engraving. Artist: Odoardo Fialetti.
A dancing skeleton his spine, ribs and hip, while other bones float in the air. Cropped from Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, Tabulae anatomicae... (Rome, 1741). Copperplate engraving.
A flirtatious woman peeks over her shoulder while showing some dissected muscles. Cropped from John Browne, A compleat treatise of the muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection... (London, 1681). Copperplate engraving.





Anatomical Primitives
Cadavers at Play
Anatomical Arts and Sciences

Body Part as Body Art
Show-off Cadavers

Next Section : Getting Real

The Cadaver’s Perspective: Dream Anatomy vs. Anatomical Reality

John Browne, the anatomist, in a periwig, standing behind the title inscription and a standing dissected cadaver. Cropped from John Browne, A compleat treatise of the muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection... (London, 1681). Copperplate engraving.
Figure of a dissected courtier. Cropped from John Browne, A compleat treatise of the muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection... (London, 1681). Copperplate engraving.

Artists did not just record anatomical reality: they dramatized, travestied, beautified, and moralized it. The gulf between illustration and real life was vast. In Vesalius’s time, and for centuries after, the only legal source of bodies was the gallows. This was insufficient to meet the needs of anatomists, who often stole bodies from burial grounds. But the public regarded graverobbery and dissection as an insult to funerary honor and defended their dead — the dissection of bodies carried a stigma. Families and neighbors stood vigil over the dead and battled bodysnatchers. Anatomists, therefore, tended to take their subjects from the least powerful class of people—convicts, prostitutes, the poor. Illustrators typically suppressed these social origins, but in John Browne’s anatomy the despised lower-class cadaver is perversely transformed into a high-born courtier.

Cropped photograph of the interior of an unidentified dissecting room, students pose next to three cadavers and a skeleton. United States, ca. 1910.