Comparative Guts

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Anatomical Dissection, 1495-approximately 1543

Two men studying a corpse by the light of a candle stuck in its
chest. Etching after a drawing attributed to Polidoro Caldara (Polidoro da Caravaggio). Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the Renaissance era, the tempo and sequence of a dissection were dictated by the decomposition rate of the individual structures of the cadaver. Traditionally, the dissectors began by opening the abdomen – to isolate the viscera. The image illustrates a dissection that is illuminated by a single candle, inserted into the cadaver’s rib cage. Candles provide a light of proximity, that is, their luminance does not extend far into the darkness. Moreover, the quality of candlelight appears erratic: it creates flickering shadows, distorts our perception of forms, and they generate heat. All of which is inimical to the viewing and preservation of a rapidly decaying body. Yet both dissectors are shown holding instruments of measurement, which suggests there was an expectation of precision. Relating this image to Fig. 2, the illustration from De Humani Corporis Fabrica, historical records reference Andreas Vesalius working by candlelight also—however, his dissections were often public affairs with hundreds of people in attendance. A sixteenth-century medical student, Baldassar Helser, recounted in his class notes the mise en scène of one of Vesalius’ candle-lit dissections: ‘A table on which the subject was laid, was conveniently and well installed with four steps of benches in a circle, so that nearly 200 persons could see the anatomy…. At last, D. Andreas Vesalius arrived, and many candles were lighted so we all should see.’ (1) 1. Baldassar Heseler, Andreas Vesalius’ First Public Anatomy at Bologna, 1540: An Eyewitness Report by Baldassar Heseler, ed and trans. by Ruben Eriksson. Uppsala and Stockholm: Alqvist and Wiksells (1959), 85-87.