Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Death Defied: The Anatomy Lessons of Frederik Ruysch," Book Review by Charles Wolfe and Benjamin Goldberg

My friend Charles Wolfe of Ghent University / University of Sydney has just sent along a review he co-wrote with Benjamin Goldberg of one of the most prized (and costly!) books in the Morbid Anatomy Library: Death Defied: The Anatomy Lessons of Frederik Ruysch, a biography by Luuc Kooijmans.

He has kindly allowed me to publish an excerpt here:
Outside of historians of medicine, or of Dutch science, not many of us are particularly familiar with the Dutch anatomist, apothecary, “municipal obstetrician,” museum curator, and compleat naturalist Frederik Ruysch (1638– 1731), unless we are also frequent visitors to blogs with names such as Morbid Anatomy—for Ruysch’s anatomical preparations really were sui generis, one of a kind, somewhere in between scientifically remarkable, extremely useful in the progress of anatomical knowledge, and magnificently quirky and disturbing. His “prepared” embryos and small children were frequently described as being asleep rather than dead. Balzac, in his 1831 novel La peau de chagrin (which has been variously translated as The Magic Skin or TheWild Ass Skin), has the main character enter a curiosity shop and see what he thinks is a sleeping child; it turns out to be a lost “item” from Ruysch’s anatomical collection.

Kooijmans also tells the story of the Emperor Peter the Great (who bought Ruysch’s collection, which presently is in St. Petersburg, having experienced some ups and downs in the standards of preservation over the years) kneeling to kiss a “sleeping child” embalmed by Ruysch. We can get this uncanny Ruyschian effect for ourselves—albeit mediated by oil paint—if we look at the wonderful, Rembrandt-inspired painting of Ruysch and friends entitled The Anatomy Lesson of Frederik Ruysch (above) by Adriaan Backer (1670; in the Amsterdam Historical Museum), which Kooijmans has reproduced. As contrasted with any other “anatomy lesson” painting, the corpse here looks much more like a sleeping person than a dead body. This is also the theme in a remarkable piece of literature that Kooijmans barely discusses, Giacomo Leopardi’s “Dialogue between Frederick Ruysch and His Mummies,” in his 1824 Operette morali, which is a meditation on death and the uncanny “life-likeness” of the preserved bodies (which Leopardi calls mummies).

The point that Ruysch belonged to multiple different scientific, cultural, aesthetic, and otherwise quirky trajectories (including currently fashionable discussion of visuality in the history of science) is also apparent if we contrast the high praise Ruysch received posthumously from such otherwise nationalistic  historians of medicine as Portal and Daremberg, his éloge by Fontenelle, or, most strikingly to us, the fact that after Newton’s death the Académie des Sciences in Paris decided to honor Ruysch by appointing him to Newton’s place (p. 422) with facts such as these: a 1690 inventory of his collection included “the skeleton of a human embryo of 4 months, holding in its left hand a bundle of lymph vessels, which I removed from a body more than 25 yrs ago, inflated and preserved in such a way that the valves are still clearly visible. What a lot of trouble beautiful things can be!” (59), or, much more disturbingly, the specimen, or tableau non vivant as the author puts it, of a hand holding a vulva, from Leiden University’s collection (reproduced on 284; some of these images are probably too macabre for most readers).

Sometimes, the disturbing is just strange, perhaps because we have only the story, rather than “the thing itself” (e.g., one item in his collection was described as “a small 4-footed animal that had been regurgitated by a 78-year old woman …enclosed in a pouch rather than membranes” [282]; the family wanted no money and there were credible witnesses to the event). However, the extent to which monstrosity can infect history (via the imagination) is surprising: Kooijmans notes that of the nearly one thousand specimens prepared by Ruysch, which were later bought by Peter the Great and shipped to St. Petersburg, only 11 actually display abnormalities. More conventionally beautiful are his daughter Rachel’s still-life paintings...
You can read this review in its entirety by clicking here; You can also come pay a visit the book at The Morbid Anatomy Library during open hours from 2-6 every Saturday, or buy a copy of your own by clicking here.

Image: The Anatomy Lesson of Frederik Ruysch (above) by Adriaan Backer (1670; in the Amsterdam Historical Museum); click on image to see larger, more detailed version.

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