Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The "Anatomical Machines" of the Prince of Sansevero, 1763-64

I just stumbled upon an article about the enigmatic "Anatomical Machines" of the Prince of Sansevero. These artifacts, constructed in 1763-64 by Dr. Giuseppe Salerno of Palermo, still reside in their glass cases in the "Underground Chamber" of the Museo Sansevero, and were quite sensational in their time, when popular imagination held that the Prince--in his ardor for rational, materialist science--had commanded that two of his servants be killed and virtuosically embalmed. His goal in this dark deed? To create a sort of anatomical Adam and Eve, who would--from pedestals on high and forevermore--elegantly and accurately illustrate the skeletal structure, viscera, arterial system, and vein systems of the human form. Though not the most beautiful things in the world (see above) it is said their accuracy is astounding, down to the smallest detail. More, from the webpage of the Sansevero Chapel Museum (Museo Sansevero):
In the Underground Chamber, housed in two glass cases, are the famous Anatomical Machines, i.e. the skeletons of a man and of a woman in upright position, with the artery and vein systems almost perfectly intact. The Machines were made by the doctor Giuseppe Salerno of Palermo, under the direction of Raimondo di Sangro. The discovery of notaries’ deeds and credit notes makes it possible to date these “works” to 1763-64. The two anatomical studies are the most enigmatic objects in the Sansevero Chapel...

These disquieting objects were kept in a room in the palace of the Prince of Sansevero, called “the Apartment of the Phoenix”, as a number of travellers and the Short note attest. This source describes the Machines in detail, from the blood vessels of the head to those of the tongue, and adds that at the feet of the women was placed “the tiny body of a foetus”, alongside which there was even the open placenta, connected to the foetus by umbilical cord. The two anatomical studies were moved to the Chapel, and in this way saved from destruction or loss, long after the death of the Prince. The remains of the foetus were still visible up to a few decades ago, until they were stolen.

The Anatomical Machines have fuelled the so-called “black legend” about the Prince of Sansevero. Also Benedetto Croce recounts that, according to popular belief, Raimondo di Sangro “had two of his servants killed, a man and a women, and had the bodies strangely embalmed so that they showed all the viscera, the arteries and the veins”...
From what I understand, contemporary research suggests that the "black legend" incriminating the Prince of Sansevero in erroneous, that these machines are, in fact, composed of artificial material, save for the skeletons that serve as the base; for more on this research, see the article "The Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero" which describes an ongoing project conducted by Lucia Dacome (who presented on this topic at a recent conference I attended) and Renata Peters by clicking here. For more about the "Machines," and to read in full the text from which the above excerpt is drawn, click here. All images from the Nautilus Antiques and Oddities Shop write-up of the museum; click here to find out more.

1 comment:

Krissy said...

I've had the pleasure to see these two in person while in Naples, but I wonder how they got the images! The guards were curiously over-shoulder the whole time.

Also thought I'd point out that the capella also holds the Sanmartino Veiled Christ ( which looked eerily like it was breathing when I visited.

The capella was very difficult to find, but well well worth the visit. A must if you're ever in Naples.