Francesca Catastini: Anatomy is Destiny

By Brad Feuerhelm on January 3, 2017

“If you shout they will tell you that you are hysterical!”

Brad Feuerhelm: One of the oblique parallels I noted when Paging through your book that I had not come to fantasize about previously is the relation of the operating theatre’s architecture to that of the eye. And this eye/theater is center-weighted, its gravity beckons from above, a canopy or a miasma of sorts, which sheds light, like a cascade of tears atop the tables below. I cannot tell if the architecture is behind or in front of the eye, observed or being observed.-what are your thoughts , historically or metaphorically on this observation?

Francesca Catastini: The operating theatre’s structure is well rooted in the architecture of the anatomical theatre. Anatomical theatres are a consequence of their time, Renaissance, which I consider to be fundamentally ocularcentric: linear perspective and telescope, just to name a few, were developed during Renaissance. In the book I pair an illustration of the anatomical theatre in Padua and the representation of the eye taken from De visione voce auditu (1600) by Fabrici D’Aquapendente. He was professor of Surgery and Anatomy at the University of Padua and the one who promoted and backed the construction of the permanent anatomical theatre. Acquapendente’s woodcut of the eye is strikingly similar to the virtual cone of vision derived from the mirror device used by Brunelleschi in his experiments on perspective. These cones have their apex in the viewer, the subject, and their sides surrounding what is observed, the object.
The scopic geometry of anatomical theatres, unlike the operating theatres’ one, still responds to the logic of spectacle, that aims ‘To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison). However, it also moves the focus on the viewer, isolating him in his act of seeing a de-animated object. Significantly enough, as pointed out by Martin Jay in his The Scopic Regime of Modernity, this model isn’t conceived with a natural binocular vision in mind, but ‘in the manner of a lone eye looking through a peephole at the scene in front of it’.

One last thing which stroke my attention is some sort of similarity in the economy of vision of Padua’s XVI century anatomical theatre and Bentham’s XVIII century architecture of the Panopticon. The theatre in a way is a sort of subverted Panopticon. Everyone can see and be seen, despite the focus being in the center, in fact, everyone is a possible object of observation, in a potentially continuous bouncing of gazes.

BF: Of further notation is that one can also ponder these theaters just as Foucault ponders the architecture of the asylum or penal system. The Pantopticon is present in medicine just as it is visible in the prison system and historically they share bodies in common. The shipping from gallows to the merciless hands of the anatomist has a strong tradition. Ruth Richardson in Death, Dissection and the Destitute points out the feverish economy of bodies emboldened by the spectacle of criminal death. She writes about the economy from committed crime to the scalpel. Within your research for this book, outside of Foucault, did you encounter any particular histories for the spaces you were photographing? Perhaps a wrongly accused corpus historically apportioned to the space in which you lens would fetishize?

FC: Penal system throughout Europe at those times was of course even less trustworthy than the contemporary one. Wrong accusations and innocents’ executions were not uncommon, plus, as you pointed out, public dissections always had to struggle with the shortage of raw material, resulting both in a not so fair way of judgement and a trafficking of corpses. It is proven that women were sentenced to dissection more easily than men, as female bodies were scarcer [Dissections on Display, Christine Quigley]. Punishments were very strict in general, being them exemplar. The dead man on the slab in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp, Adriaen Adriaenszoon, for example, was tried and sentenced to death for his failed attempt to steal a man’s coat. After studying the painting through x-rays researchers found out that originally in the group portrait the cadaver’s right arm was missing, he was in fact one-handed, due to a previous punishment.

What was also not so uncommon was the phenomenon of apparent deaths. There are quite a few cases of “not properly hanged” criminals, or presumed ones, whose hearts were still beating when their bodies were opened on the dissecting table, turning the public dissection into a vivisection. Sometimes even into a second chance for the condemned, as in the case of Anne Green: hanged in 1650, she regained consciousness on the table, managed to recover and obtained a pardon. Lucky her…

“The French humanist and physician Charles Etienne, in the third book of his De dissectione partium corporis humani, copied woman-figures from a series of Italian erotic prints, Amori degli Dei, based on classical mythology. Women are represented in solitude, but still in the pose of sexual intercourse, with cut bellies and their wombs exposed”

Immagini 004

BF:I like that the work hints at the female body without also fetishisizing its importance in contemporary matters of feminism. You have hinted to eggs, to the reproductive system being “mapped” by incongruous and rudimentary male hands, but yet, like searching for and finding a spent bullet casing at the edge of a crime scene, your declaration of these concepts are drawn, not shouted at. I appreciate this. How important was it for you to speak from a position of the feminine, the female, or simply the first-hand?

FC: If you shout they will tell you that you are hysterical! Being a woman in this case probably gave me a vantage point, as I can make fun of things without risking being seen as superficial. I hinted at eggs and the womb as it was almost inevitable. Most of anatomical illustrations during Renaissance are of female naked figures exhibiting both their external and internal body. The French humanist and physician Charles Etienne, in the third book of his De dissectione partium corporis humani, copied woman-figures from a series of Italian erotic prints, Amori degli Dei, based on classical mythology. Women are represented in solitude, but still in the pose of sexual intercourse, with cut bellies and their wombs exposed. To be fair this massive interest was not exclusively related to some sort of malicious form of voyeurism, anatomists were obsessed with the mystery of life, as understanding generation was of course a crucial topic of investigation.  Eggs as placentas and an introflected penis as the female reproductive system are some of the naiveties Renaissance anatomists are responsible for. However this is just the consequence of the fact they did not know where to look at and what to look for. They simply visualized what was more plausible for them, according to their culture and knowledge, which was of course extensively phallocentric, among many other things. I am not shouting nor making a striking point of these aspects because I like to treat this topic in the same way I treat others, it may have more room in the book simply because it had more room in anatomical manuals. What I find interesting is to notice the less weight women had in social life, the more weight they had inside the pages of those books…

BF: Body horror, catholic upbringing, a post-Freudian obsession with the excremental and the sensual. Could you be any more Italian? Just kidding….a bit… theatres and anatomy in general are not solely an Italian endeavor, but the great age of ingenuity in this field previous to the nineteenth century certainly point towards a strong history of the bone saw within Italy. Did you study medicine at any point? Where did your longing to research these theatres begin?

FC: Hahah, oh you, you just reminded me I am a woman and now that I am Italian… I never feel at ease when grouped together with a specific kind of people.

BF:Touche’.I did not mean it as reminder, but it is clearly topical for the work. It is not meant as a divisive scalpel of engendered principal.

FC: I have actually always liked blood, more than the excremental, but that is a fascination rather than an obsession… So yes, all in all you are probably right, it is a matter of imprinting and upbringing I guess. Furthermore my father used to be a pharmacist, I started to leaf through his Dictionary of General Pathology even before learning to read. I was really attracted by that book full of images, it was reassuringly scary, feeding my curiosity and helping me to overcome repulsion and empathic sorrow through its straight, de-identifying scientific approach. I never studied medicine though, I opted for biology at the beginning of my University career (which was very brief), as I wanted to become an ethologist and observe chimpanzees.

My research on anatomical theatres began almost by chance. I had started doing some research for a project about museums as “viewing and exhibiting machines”. I wanted to ponder on the relationship between subject and object, what is alive and what becomes dead within this context of public and shared culture and then I run into these places, which I did not know anything about. I had never visited one before and, funnily enough, I ignorantly thought most of them were in the Netherlands, because of Rembrandt’s paintings. Actually I was starting to delve into something, which I realized was really handier, as most of the anatomical theatres which are still existing are in Italy instead.

BF: The book makes heavy use of archival material from various international communities. I see a strange sensation of Americana being played out in some of the images, notably the image of Ronald Reagan-despot, idiot, actor, president. The humor and his later politicized body created a schism that has gone on to be appreciated in all its whimsy. When sourcing images for the book, did you ever feel that in using woodcut reproductions, images of microscopic slides that the material was disseminating concrete information for the viewer or did you think at any point that it might limit the plausible outcome of the photographs within?

FC: I honestly treated all the materials without stressing too much their provenance, even if, of course, you cannot omit it or pretend it has no meaning. Regarding Reagan, I could not help using that image, but Europe has its own stories of acting and power as well, Karol Wojtila was a former amateur actor.
With Reagan posing as a living discobolus I am genuinely and probably naively questioning the matter of idealization, the research of a canon, I aim at something far beyond time, contingent politics and underpants fashion. When the practice of public dissection strove anatomy was more linked to natural philosophy than to medicine per se. Anatomists’ main goal was not discovering solutions to heal specific pathologies and illnesses, they were looking for a sort of standard proper structure of the human body.
I decided to use different kind of materials as what interests me the most is the production of visibility vs visualization. This no ladder-like interaction among images possibly triggers many forms of interplay and an autonomous exchange between the work and the viewer.

I photographed microscopic slides with a totally arbitrary approach, choosing what I liked among what I had access to, the cholera slide’s detail in the book is even upside down. But of course there is also some sort of concrete information. If you interrupt the flow of connections and consider woodcut reproductions on their own, they all show illustrations inside anatomical manuals had a quite strong narrative. They are beautifully drawn, set in bucolic landscapes and showing corpses and skeletons as they were still living. Aesthetic value was crucial to try to reduce the gap between life and death and to make the content more appealing and less appalling, in order to engage the viewer. According to the topic of the project, I even wanted to blend with a constant swinging between a material deconstruction of the whole in its heterogeneous parts, and a mental and artificial re-composition of it as a complex and structured unity. If I focused only on visceral and strictly anatomical aspects, for instance, I would have satisfied only people interested in the guts. My brother, for example, looks exclusively at the images of anatomical theatres, as he appreciates their architectural harmony. He does not care at all about the rest and cannot even stand the idea of blood. Everyone has his own mental processes to connect or exclude things. If this leads us to become more aware of how little we know and how partial we can all be, then I am glad.

“This no ladder-like interaction among images possibly triggers many forms of interplay and an autonomous exchange between the work and the viewer”

Actor Ronald Reagan poses for a sculpture class at the University of Southern California in 1940. He was chosen as an example of the ideal male physique by the school’s fine arts departments, based on his portrayal of George Gipp.

BF:I seem to remember more images in the maquette of the book when we went over it in Vienna. I seem to remember two images in particular where you had photographed the society of anatomists that currently attend some of the universities in which house the theaters that hold your interest. I also remember you, lying naked, cold, and stiff along a polished wooden table, your body in its apprehensive gesture towards death betrayed by signs of your living and pulsing body with its prickled pores when observed at a intimate distance..why did you omit these images? Areolas in death pucker like the pits of preened prunes.

FC: I omitted them because you and Roger Eberhard (both in the jury) suggested me to do so. Just kidding… a bit… The self-portrait was actually the first image of the whole project, it is how everything started. I did not take it off because of the nipples of course, I quite like this kind of paradox of the living corpse, but it was too personal. It was my “ocular desire”, my longing to invade that space, I wanted to see myself in that context. With the image of the students of the University of the Arts in Bologna, posing as the audience of an hypothetical dissection, there is a similar reason. It is not too personal and self-oriented like the self-portrait, but again, it was something I wanted to see. I probably needed to fill the theatre with leaving beings in order to finally accept it in all its contemplative uncanny-ness. The actual emptiness of these places is far deeper and stronger than any mise-en-scène. The Modern Spirit is Vivisective is also about the role of vision in the graph of power and knowledge in Western culture. The two images you mentioned could represent in a way my own display of power, for the viewer to witness. Keeping them would have compromised the whole balance of the book.

BF: Performance and the purgatory for the body examined by the physician’s blade. Why have you decided to exhume Mr. Joyce? Your quotation “ The Modern Sprit is Vivisective” makes me think you yourself have a literary fetish or perhaps creative necrophiliac impulse in the back of your skull….

FC: I’ve always liked things which stand still.

The title implies an analytical approach, an anatomical, or anatomizing gaze, which de-animates its object of vision, dismembering and swallowing it in a cataloguing vertigo.
I need to admit I am far from being a Joyce expert, I read just a few books by him, but not Stephen Hero, his posthumously-published autobiographical novel from which this quotation is taken. Since I am a boring person after my twenties I started being more interested in essays than in literature, even if I keep telling myself to read more poems and novels. I found this quote in an Italian essay, Le cicatrici del testo, by Alessandra Violi.

A part from what Joyce actually meant, I like this sentence for its ambiguity. Once you take it out of its original context you should specify what is “modern”. The term, coined in the 16th century, means “relating or belonging to the present time”, but in historiography it refers to Modern History, whose timeframe spans from the second half of the XV century till the end of the XVIII century. So is the Modern Spirit of the book that of our present time or is it related to the past, or both? Who knows… “Vivisective”sounds odd to most of English native speakers’ ears. I think it is simply another word for the probably more frequent “vivisectional”, still, I like the fact that it seems Joyce played some violence on the language to get to a word with a violent connotation.

During the IV and the III century b.C., in the medical school of Alexandria, in Egypt, vivisection on human beings was legal, but then it became officially and ferociously forbidden. The desire to vivisect assumed latent forms during the Modern Age, but it never died. Most anatomical manuals hinted at vivisection, with chapters such as What may be learned from the dissection of dead and what of the living (De humani corporis fabrica; Andreas Vesalius), and On vivisection (De re anatomica, Realdo Colombo), although they are all about anatomizing living animals.
Even later it kept being an issue, Diderot, for example, in his Encyclopédie, claimed executions were a real waste for science, as criminals’ lives would have been more profitable if sacrificed on the dissecting table [Le Regard de l’anatomiste. Dissection et invention du corps en Occident, Rafael Mandressi].

Francesca Catastini

The Modern Spirit Is Vivisective

Anzenberger Edition

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Francesca Catastini.)

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