Lent Week 5: “Skeletons in the cabinet and the Grand Tour of anatomy”

Summary of the talk that Margaret Carlyle, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, gave at Cabinet on the 17th February 2014

d'Agoty skeleton

Skeleton colour poster by Jacques Fabien Gautier d’Agoty

Human skeletons achieved new currency in eighteenth-century anatomy, gaining value as curiosities and commodities, as well as pedagogical and research objects. This was on top of their traditional role as purveyors of human decay and mortality. My paper provides an overview of how the skeleton was transformed by the Grand Tour, while undertaking its own “circuit” from graveyard to natural history collection to classroom to anatomy atlas. I suggest that the skeleton emerged as a “boundary object” at the intersection of natural history and medicine and that this “boundary” status is representative of anatomy’s disciplinary development as a whole in this period.

Skeletons and other human remains were procured from hospitals, graveyards, the scaffold, and occasionally directly from the deathbed. The anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney was said to have illicitly obtained cadavers from the cemetery near his residence when hospital corpses failed to meet his demands. The re-location during the 1770s of urban graveyards like the Holy Innocents Cemetery to the city limits facilitated trade in human skeletons. Those remains not snatched up were laid to rest in a network of subterranean galleries underneath the southern gate of Paris, which serve as catacombs to this day.

A number of the skeletons carted out of cemeteries entered natural history cabinets, where they served as display items. These cabinets emerged as important destinations in the context of the Grand Tour, the Continental circuit typically undertaken by upper class British men to complete their education and prepare for their futures as cultured members of polite society. Particularly popular stops were the “Skeletons of Malefactors” displayed in the Anatomy Hall at the University of Leiden and the female wax figures known as Venuses found in Felice Fontana’s Florentine workshop.

Leiden Lecture Hall

Leiden Lecture Hall, “Skeletons of Malefactors,” 1610

Paris was also a formidable destination for travellers. Its most impressive, all-encompassing natural history collection could be found in the townhouse of the aristocrat Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson. His collection comprised cabinets of botanicals, exotic minerals and shells, and animals spread across inter-connecting rooms, which his visitors toured freely. This was with the exception of the “Anatomy Cabinet,” which De La Mosson hid behind the scenes in a back corridor. The novelty of skeletons clearly required special moral consideration – that is, observance of codes of modesty on top of good taste and scientific connoisseurship.

Armoire Bonnier de la Mosson

Armoire of specimens from Bonnier de la Mosson’s natural history cabinet, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris

Artificial and natural skeletons also populated the large scale natural history cabinets attached to scientific societies. In Paris alone, bone collections could be found at the Royal Academy of Surgery, the Royal Academy of Sciences, and the Alfort Veterinary School, where Honoré Fragonard’s grand “horserider” lured tourists. Human osteology was also an important teaching subject at the King’s Garden, where students crowded into a large lecture theatre to observe dissections on a corpse. By mid-century, student demands for interaction with fresh bones created a new market for hands-on anatomy in smaller scale settings. Enterprising anatomists like the remarkable anatomical wax modeller Mlle Biheron stepped in to meet the demand. She attracted visitors to her museum of artificial anatomies, which included the lifesize model of a pregnant woman. Tourists may have toured her back garden, where she stored the corpses she was dissecting and after which she fashioned her models.

Skeletons also enjoyed new iconographic status in the anatomical atlases in circulation, including William Cheselden’s Osteographia or the Anatomy of Bones (1733) and Bernhard Siegfried Albinus’s (1697-1770) Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani (1749). The lavish Traité d’Ostéologie that reached French audiences in 1759 was a translation of the Scottish anatomist Alexander Monro’s Anatomy of the Human Bones produced by Mme Thiroux d’Arconville. This atlas featured thirty two engravings of skeletons including representations of man, woman, and child.

Female skeleton in Traité d'Ostéologie

Female skeleton in Mme Thiroux d’Arconville, Traité d’Ostéologie (translation of Anatomy of the Human Bones, 1759), Vol.2

The skeleton provided a foundation for enquiry into human anatomy in a period of disciplinary ferment. The commodification of models like skeletons into inventive formats contributed to the growing prestige of natural history collectors and anatomists. The skeleton proved equally important to the “sciences of man” and the emerging subdisciplines of craniometry and pelvimetry, which blended quantitative and qualitative assessments of discreet aspects of skeletons. The skeleton was mysterious, arousing, and morally compromising, but it was an increasingly familiar object open to scrutiny and study by tourists and anatomists alike. By the end of the eighteenth century, the skeleton had made its way into the cabinet of scientific knowledge, and it was there to stay.



“Horserider” écorché by Honoré Fragonard, Ecole Vétérinaire d’Alfort, Paris

Feature article: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/skeletons-in-the-cupboard-of-medical-science



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