Greco-Roman medicine and natural sciences did not from the start show any great interest in reaching under the skin and into the human body to explore and map its contents. The first surviving detailed anatomical works are those by Aristotle, who worked only on non-human animals; and it is only in the Hellenistic era (4th–2nd centuries BCE), in the exceptional context of Alexandrian, palace-sponsored, research, that for a short period of time the dissection of human cadavers (and, if we are to believe controversial evidence, even vivisection of condemned criminals) appears to have been openly allowed. So begins the history of ‘anatomy’ in the tradition of Western medicine in its etymological sense of ana-tomia
, the ‘orderly cutting into parts’ of the animal body and the careful distinction of components, tissues, substances, to which Galen’s writings on the vivisections he practiced on a vast range of animals, small and big, left to us evidence as wonderful as it is ghastly. This learning itinerary and scientific programmes, unfortunately, left behind no pictures of the body ‘imagined’ by these thinkers for us to look at; while writers, poets, and artists, on the other hand, offer us complementary, if indirect evidence of this growing curiosity in what lies under the skin, inviting the eye to turn towards the inside of the human body and reach underneath its surface.
The figurative material one can find is fundamentally of two types: artistic, and votive in purpose (especially Etruscan and Roman, rather than Greek) – i.e., for a public very general and largely unspecified. In the first, artistic evidence, the inside is preserved intact (as Osborne shows) and communicates to the outside through modest lesions. The medical fascination with the inside of the body as preserving powerful mechanisms and vital matters, however, cannot have left artists indifferent, although the conventions of public art were identical with highly stylised, solid and healthy forms; Apollo’s belly (fig. 3)
could be read in this sense – and certainly the comical bellies of the grotesque terracottas (fig. 2).
The votives aimed at focusing the healing powers of the divinity by displaying the body part (ill, then healed) constitute a legitimate exception; and while the classical Greeks shied away from including inner parts among the depictable objects to be displayed in gratitude, in the Etruscan and Roman workshops polyvisceral plaques of the individual stomach, womb or intestine are relatively common (fig. 4, fig. 5).