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Response to Review of Malleable Anatomies: Models, Makers and Material Culture in Eighteenth-Century Italy

Weaving Histories

18th-century anatomical models enjoy to this day an impressive visual power. Malleable Anatomies explores the history of the entangled social and material relations that lay behind this power. One of its aims is to study how anatomical models inscribed knowledge and shaped communities. I would like to thank Dr. Kathryn Woods for her thorough reading of the book. It is a rare privilege to receive such close attention and I am grateful for Woods’ time and effort. In what follows, I will focus on some of the reasons that led me to adopt a certain angle of historical observation and discuss some of its implications and advantages. It goes without saying that the stories that may be told about the objects considered in this study are manifold and could rely on approaches and directions that are different from the ones adopted here.

As mentioned by Woods, this book reconstructs the early stages of the practice of anatomical modelling by considering the specimens presented in several anatomical displays that were created in Bologna, Naples and Palermo during the mid-18th century. These displays were completed before the better-known anatomical collection at the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History opened in Florence in 1775 and became a fundamental point of reference for the practice of anatomical modelling. Like the Florentine collection, the anatomical displays discussed in Malleable Anatomies were widely appreciated and rapidly regarded as capable of generating and mediating bodily knowledge to different audiences, including lay viewers, students, artists, and practitioners. In recent years, one of their makers, the celebrated anatomical modeller Anna Morandi Manzolini, has attracted increasing scholarly interest. But otherwise these early stages have received comparatively less attention. Yet, this early history of anatomical modelling is important because it sheds light on the emergence and development of a practice that placed objects at the centre of processes of knowledge production and fashioned them as special sites for the investigation of the human body.

Malleable Anatomies focuses on this fluid, transitional moment during which anatomical modelling was codified as a source of knowledge. It argues that anatomical models were expression of the interweaving of social, cultural, medical, and political threads. Thus, this is a project about the social lives of objects as much as it is about bodies and knowledge. It deals with questions such as: how did these objects inscribe and mediate bodily knowledge? What should we make of the fact that they were so rapidly regarded as sources of anatomical learning? What are the implications of reconstructing their stories? And how do history and history writing look like if we place objects and their social lives at the centre of our historical investigations?

Objects object, as it has been noticed. They resist. Yet, they are physically, socially, and culturally on the move. They are intrinsically malleable and have a transformative capacity to create, embody, and convey different meanings. This was certainly the case for mid-18th-century anatomical specimens. As material visualizations of the human body, they were in flux. They were produced at the crossroads of certain social, cultural, religious, and political as well as medical settings, and drew on a variety of visual, material, social, and rhetorical repertoires. They moved across spaces, had manifold uses, served different purposes, and codified, transformed and mediated a multiplicity of messages. At the same time, they became a primary expression of anatomy’s aspiration to advance claims of universality and were characterized as privileged points of entry into ‘the nature’ of human nature. In order to reconstruct how these fluid and malleable objects became special sites of bodily knowledge, Malleable Anatomies adopts a particular point of historical observation to trace their shifting meanings and social, material, and cultural transformations. Accordingly, the book highlights the importance of locality in knowledge-making processes while turning anatomical specimens’ claims of universality into the object of historical scrutiny. Thus, it is beyond the scope of this work to consider the broader history of anatomical models in Italy and Europe over the 18th and 19th centuries. Likewise, this study does not attempt to trace the impact of 18th-century anatomical modelling on 19th-century anatomical practices. Rather, drawing attention to the local character of the practice of anatomical modelling, it interrogates the very assumption that we could talk about anatomical specimens in general and across different periods.

The adoption of a microhistorical lens has been instrumental to this undertaking and has made it possible to trace how the anatomical specimens considered in this work were created at the crossroads of social, cultural, and political as well as medical circumstances. In order to reconstruct the processes of translation and negotiation that informed the fashioning of these specimens as sites of bodily knowledge, Malleable Anatomies follows their lives, from the time they were first envisioned as useful tools of knowledge to the period in which they started to fall short of their epistemological promise and began their descent into obsolescence. In particular, the book examines the different worlds that anatomical specimens inhabited, reconstructs the physical and social spaces in which they were situated, and explores the visual, material, and cultural repertoires in which they were embedded. It considers the labour and artisanal skills that went into their making and traces the networks of social relations in which they were enmeshed. It furthermore investigates how, in mid-18th-century Italy, anatomical models brought questions about bodies, materiality, visualization, knowledge, gender, and power to bear upon each other.

Thanks to its reduced scale of analysis and its anthropological vocation, microhistory has provided a felicitous methodological apparatus to explore anatomical models’ material articulations and fluid biographical trajectories. It has offered a particularly appropriate template to interrogate received assumptions and generalizations about anatomical models and follow the threads of unexpected situations and connections that would have otherwise remained opaque. Moreover, it has made it possible to trace the specific settings and contingencies that characterized the lives of these objects and reconstruct the details of their layered and shifting meanings in a way that could be sensitive to issues of historicity. One of the challenges posed by the study of anatomical models is that they address our senses, engage us in affective relations, and intrigue us in ways that transcend their historical dimension. Undoubtedly, these are also some of the factors that make anatomical models so intriguing and the object of growing interest. But questions arise when it comes to reconstructing their histories: How can we turn their visual power into the object of historical investigation? How can we navigate their past while maintaining an adequate historical perspective? And how can we make non-verbal sources speak in a way that is sensitive to their specific socio-historical contingencies? Addressing these questions has required considering and cross-referencing a large and diverse body of primary sources in order to recover the details of anatomical models’ webs of relations. Such an approach has the advantage of shedding new light on familiar historical territories.

A notable example concerns the common classification of 18th-century natural and anatomical knowledge under the rubric of ‘Enlightenment’. I have intentionally and carefully avoided framing the object of this study in terms of ‘the Enlightenment’. In the main text, the word ‘Enlightenment’ is only mentioned to distinguish this work from a body of literature that has construed pope Benedict XIV’s patronage of natural inquiry and anatomical modelling as a reflection of his support for the Enlightenment. Malleable Anatomies highlights the centrality of papal initiative in the patronage of mid-18th-century anatomical modelling in Bologna. However, it does not frame this patronage in terms of the Enlightenment and distances itself from the literature that portrays Benedict XIV as ‘the Enlightenment pope’. It suggests that in order to understand the centrality of papal initiative in the early history of anatomical modelling, we need to steer clear of categories such as ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘the Enlightenment pope’ and rather consider the role of anatomy in the history of saint-making processes. Accordingly, this study argues that pope Benedict XIV’s patronage of anatomical modelling is not about the Enlightenment and should be situated in the context of his lifelong involvement in the definition of the criteria of saint-making instead. Likewise, it suggests that supporting the production and public display of anatomical specimens played a part in the papal effort to define parameters of authenticity in a way that could help to grant and maintain papal authority. This shift in perspective is meant to cast light on the role of anatomical specimens in the triangulation of power, knowledge, and authority rather than in the context of the genealogies of progress inscribed into narratives of the Enlightenment. It also allows us to appreciate how 18th-century medical and natural knowledge could serve different purposes, including religious ones, and could be understood in ways that dispense with the notion of the Enlightenment.

The point here is not to embark in a full-fledged war against the Enlightenment, which would be beyond the scope of this study, but to see what happens when we bracket this category in our historical understandings of 18th-century engagements with the natural world. If we take this stance, the advantages of adopting a microhistorical lens are manifold. For one thing, through close reconstruction of localities and specific settings we can appreciate the variety of purposes and uses that characterized 18th-century natural inquiries and medical pursuits, and accordingly question the baggage of expectations customarily associated with ‘the age of the Enlightenment’. For another, this shift in perspective challenges common assumptions about received historiographic categories and periodizations, and encourages us to turn these assumptions into the object of scrutiny and investigation. In Chapter 1, for instance, bracketing the category of ‘Enlightenment’ allows us to reconstruct how promoting anatomical displays was functional to the authentication of sanctity and, by implication, to the integrity and authority of an institution like the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic Church, which had a vested interest in securing the reliability of saint-making procedures. This shift in perspective offers the opportunity to reconstruct how a particular convergence of religious and anatomical pursuits led to the re-interpretation of forms of material evidence and informed views of normativity, notions of authenticity, and material and visual practices that became integral to medical and natural knowledge. In general, the effort to articulate the layered complexity of anatomical specimens beyond traditional narratives of the Enlightenment can help us to shed new light on the history of 18th-century natural inquiries and medical pursuits and their social and political implications.

Another related example regarding the advantages of adopting such a methodological approach concerns the relationships between religious practices and anatomical displays, in general, and between rituals of adoration of relics and other devotional objects and knowledge practices related to the viewing and handling of anatomical specimens, in particular. To what extent did techniques, conventions, styles, rhetorical motifs, practices, and modes of making and viewing travel across these domains? A close look at the social life of anatomical objects shows that there is no obvious answer to this question. Reconstructing these objects’ biographies highlights patterns of continuity and discontinuity between devotional and anatomical realms with regard to the spaces and practices of display, the framing of observation and contemplation, and the centrality of the senses and affects in the engagement with the material world. It also reveals that, notwithstanding the conspicuous investment in demarcating efforts, boundaries continued to be permeable and, in many ways, ambiguous. While Chapter 4 is specifically dedicated to navigating these uncertain boundaries, this is also a recurring theme that traverses the whole book. In general, reconstructing the social lives of things through a microhistorical lens shows that objects’ biographical trajectories do not have a linear development and are rather intrinsically woven into multiple and porous webs of meanings and social relations. Capturing this complexity requires following the threads of these layered and fluid historical entities. Such an approach is bound to raise methodological questions when it comes to narrative: how can we make objects talk in a manner that could account for their entangled existences and curate their histories in ways that could do justice to their complexity and historicity while still remaining legible?

In order to address these questions, I have looked for a narrative structure that could account for the layered plasticity of anatomical objects (their malleability, fluidity, and open-endedness) and allow readers to see how the different aspects of the story were connected and intertwined. My goal was to ensure that although each chapter focused on a specific case study, it would remain in dialogue with perspectives and points of discussion raised elsewhere, thus allowing readers to access the story through different angles and follow different threads. It looked like a daunting prospect. Yet, some of the very themes of the book came to my succour. In particular, the worlds of textiles and needlework, which both materially and metaphorically pervaded 18th-century views of the human body, ended up speaking to the broader architecture of this work. Anatomical models were part of materially, socially, culturally, and politically interwoven histories of humans and non-humans. They were social fabrics in their own right. In order to reconstruct their biographies, I have looked for a storytelling strategy that could, as it were, weave the methodological and analytical framework of this study into its narrative fabric. Such an approach was bound to face challenges. One of them was of course the availability of sources. We are particularly fortunate that the majority of the anatomical specimens considered in this study have survived to this day. But the paper trail they have left behind is regretfully thin. In many cases, even the information on how these specimens were made is limited and largely derivative. As a consequence, telling their stories necessitates adopting a special angle of historical observation and focusing on their entangled webs of social relations. Reconstructing how the lives of makers, users, patrons and collectors were affected by anatomical specimens has provided a useful vantage point to trace these objects’ own biographical trajectories.

The final chapter of the book follows some of these threads beyond Bologna, down south along the Italian peninsula to Naples and Sicily. It begins with the story of a model that was produced in mid-18th-century Palermo and was headed to Bologna, but did not arrive at its destination because it was purchased along the way in Naples. By focusing on this object and the anatomical display of which it became a part, this chapter complements the previous chapters by casting further light on how locality played an important part in shaping the biographical trajectories of anatomical models. Shifting attention from the papal states to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, it expands the study of how anatomical models were deeply entrenched in specific political geographies. In doing so, this chapter introduces an element of comparison that both illuminates facets of the story that were common to the different sites of anatomical modelling and display, and highlights aspects that were specific to each location. These include the social and geopolitical dynamics informing the production and use of anatomical specimens and their shifting values as well as the relationship between locality and claims of universality, religion and medical knowledge, the natural and the artificial, and the authentic and the inauthentic. Chapter 7 also extends the investigation of the early stages of anatomical modelling beyond a setting dominated by papal patronage. It examines the role of anatomical specimens that moved from the Palermitan medical world to the Neapolitan context of private collecting, thus casting further light on these objects’ multiple uses and meanings. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to introduce a comparative perspective on the relationship between wax-modelling and other forms of production of anatomical specimens vis-à-vis notions of the natural and the artificial, and the authentic and the inauthentic. Dubbed ‘anatomical machines’, the specimens at the centre of this chapter were presented as the result of anatomical injection. In the mid-18th century, specimens obtained through anatomical injections enjoyed a special status because they were regarded as a quintessential expression of nature unveiling itself in front of the beholder’s eyes. However, although the anatomical machines were presented as the result of anatomical injection, their manufacturing remained ambiguous. In this sense, their story invites us to consider how the boundaries between the natural and the artificial were locally defined and, in this particular setting, continued to be fluid well into the 18th century. It shows that, in mid-18th-century Naples, presenting the anatomical machines as the result of injection – and, therefore, as the ultimate anatomical specimen – was itself the expression of an artifice. The book seeks to address and articulate this ambiguity, and this is reflected in the choice of terminology. 

To conclude, one could say that mid-18th-century anatomical specimens provide a particularly felicitous point of entry into the historical understanding of material flows and frictions. Malleable Anatomies adopts a microhistorical lens and an anthropological stance in order to reconstruct their entangled lives and explore their role in historical considerations of bodies, knowledge, and power. Following these objects and reconstructing their social lives has led me to take unanticipated turns and revisit historical territories that I took to be familiar. Perhaps, most importantly, it has taught me that attending to things can open up the way to novel perspectives on history writing. I think I can leave it there and once again thank Kathryn Woods and Reviews in History for the opportunity to share some more thoughts on Malleable Anatomies and continue the conversation.