The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini

James Delbourgo admires an enlightened woman of science who became a fixture of the Grand Tour

February 24, 2011

In one of Edgar Allan Poe's grislier short stories, the gloomy Egaeus is to marry his cousin Berenice (for whom the tale is named), only for her to fall ill and die. Obsessed with her teeth, Egaeus wakes to discover that he appears to have opened her grave and removed them as a monomaniacal keepsake. It turns out, however, that Berenice is not dead, a revelation that chillingly transforms the significance of those disembodied teeth.

The cover of Rebecca Messbarger's visually engrossing study of a leading Enlightenment anatomist also features a set of teeth, set in an open mouth that appears to cry out to the viewer. But this set is quite different from that imagined by Poe. Where the removal of Berenice's teeth conjured her dreadful silencing, this mouth speaks by contrast of a woman who achieved remarkable self-expression and recognition in a world dominated by the public scientific voices of men.

The mouth in question was modelled in wax by a female anatomist named Anna Morandi, a resident of mid-18th century Bologna who became a kind of curiosity in her own right as a fixture of the Grand Tour, such was her fame as the self-styled "lady anatomist" - a kind of irresistible paradox combining enormous manual dexterity, deep learning and, reportedly, signature femininity.

The most extraordinary of Morandi's many dazzling works that are beautifully reproduced in this volume (including starfish-like eyes with shooting sinews) is her own wax self-portrait. Here she appears as a bejewelled and exquisitely attired lady who nevertheless commandingly wields a set of anatomical tools. As Messbarger convincingly argues, Morandi thus embodied a reversal of anatomical authority's traditional gender dynamics. Instead of a man dominating women's bodies in order to speak about anatomical structure, Morandi the lady anatomist subjected both male and female bodies to her gaze and scalpel.

Details of her early life in Bologna are lacking, so we cannot be sure about her education. However, it was through marriage to the anatomist Giovanni Manzolini that she came to collaborate in producing some of the most remarkably accurate anatomical wax models crafted anywhere in the world, many of which remain on public display in the Museo di Palazzo Poggi at the University of Bologna. Her story is a striking example of how women could play decisive roles in early modern science in domestic, non-public settings.

Together with Manzolini, Morandi claimed to have dissected more than a thousand bodies in their home, where she also gave lectures (recoverable from surviving notebooks), and in effect professed the science of anatomy, albeit to private student audiences rather than to public ones in the university's anatomy theatre. Their home thus competed with and complemented official venues of learning such as Bologna's medical school, and in some ways outdid them for scientific accuracy, since their wax models had more definition than freshly dissected corpses.

As her fame grew, Morandi received commissions from Catherine the Great and the King of Poland, and was visited by the Emperor of Austria, although her husband's death left her in dire financial straits. Grand Tourists flocked to see the improbable lady anatomist, in part because her virtuosity confounded notions of female inferiority. Bologna's male elite were happy for her talents to be seen as part of their local enlightenment and civic renaissance. But they denied her an institutional home or financial support, and continued to see her as an artisanal improvvisatrice: an individual of prodigious talent, rather than a publicly legitimate female natural philosopher.

Poignantly, Morandi's anatomical tools are now missing from her wax self-portrait. In piecing together the whole of a life so adept at rendering the parts of others, Messbarger restores them to view.

The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini

By Rebecca Messbarger

University of Chicago Press 248pp, £22.50 ISBN 9780226520810

Published 30 November 2010

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