Genius as Eros



Lian Chikako Chang




One’s first reaction to the book is entirely favorable. The type is ­beautiful and the book handles well. It is only as we turn over the pages that we become aware of something amiss… .1

C. E. Kellet

Charles Estienne’s 1545 anatomical treatise De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres appears bizarre to contemporary eyes.2 Its woodcuts are anatomic both in a medical sense, in terms of depicting information about the body’s parts, and in a sense that has been interpreted as pornographic, in terms of displaying bodies and body parts in a manner intended to arouse sexual feelings.3 They have often been dismissed as failed scientific representations, particularly in contrast with the more anatomically precise and aesthetically refined images in Vesalius’ treatise. For historians of medicine Kenneth Roberts and John Tomlinson, the images are “mannered, even surrealistic,” and “quite unconnected with any didactic purpose.”4 For historian Bette Talvacchia, “the result can be hardly less than disturbing, fueled by motives that creep toward the sadistic.”5 More prosaic but just as damning, literary historian Arthur Tilley has described Estienne as an underachiever whose “learning was greater than his science.”6

The failure of these images, however, is only apparent when judged from the point of view of modern science. In light of Estienne’s sixteenth-century humanist context, a different interpretation becomes legible. Whereas modern anatomy focuses on body parts, often literally removed from their context, and modern pornography focuses a relentless gaze on parts and actions similarly divorced from human experience, the figures in De dissectione are emphatically immersed in a context that is at once religious, artistic, philosophical, and erotic. In this essay I will argue that this contextualization, disturbing as it may seem, allows us a glimpse of the erotic role of vision and transformation in Renaissance notions of creativity.

Charles Estienne was born in 1504 into the French Renaissance’s most prominent family of printers. His father Henri, brother Robert, and nephew (also named Henri) printed hundreds of translations and commentaries that set standards for French scholarship, typography, and orthography. Their works included influential texts on the Greek, Latin, and French languages; the authoritative New Testament; and the complete works of Plato. While studying classics in Padua in the 1530s Charles became interested in medicine and botany, and he subsequently studied Galenic medicine in Paris as a classmate of Vesalius.7 As a medical doctor Estienne lectured on anatomy in Paris, as a printer he published over a hundred works, and as a scholar he produced a varied oeuvre including texts on ancient and modern agriculture, clothing, and a road-guide to France.8 His two monumental projects were an influential eight-hundred page encyclopedia on the ancient and biblical world entitled Dictionarium historicum, geographicum, poeticum; and the enigmatic De dissectione, in Latin and later in French.9 Estienne became King Henry II’s printer in 1551 and under royal privilege edited and published the complete works of Cicero using the text established by his brother Robert.10 While Robert was exiled from Catholic France to Calvinist Geneva, Charles ran into financial difficulties and died in 1564, imprisoned for unpaid debts.11

In the absence of a patron, Estienne was author and publisher of De dissectione throughout its fifteen-year gestation. It was the most expensive work from the famed press of Estienne’s stepfather Simon de Colines, and its printing was nearly complete in 1539 when its publication was delayed by a lawsuit between Estienne and surgeon–illustrator Estienne de la Rivière.12 As such, although published in 1545, two years after Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, Estienne is considered Vesalius’ contemporary or forerunner.

The cultural context surrounding anatomical practices in Estienne’s time can be roughly summarized through the following three points: First, as cultural historian Jonathan Sawday describes, the representational tradition of the doctrine of incarnation indicated God’s willingness to assume a human form in order to redeem mankind from its sins and corporeal bonds.13 Incarnation marked the human body as inhabited by a divine grace that could be witnessed and understood. Second, Renaissance man had a newfound faith and fear in his own mind and vision as quasi-divine means to penetrate, understand, and engender change in oneself and the world.14 This realization elevated sight and the image not only as conveyors of ideas, but as generative and potentially transformative points of contact with order and meaning. Third, the sixteenth-century print revolution, enabled by Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the previous century and advancements in woodcut techniques, allowed the creation of both the printed bible and the printed and fully illustrated anatomical treatise.

In turn, a more accessible printed bible fueled Protestant emphasis on each individual’s encounter with scripture, and particularly the Calvinists’ insistence on each person’s scrutiny of their inner state. According to Sawday, the Calvinist belief that to understand the human form was to understand God’s design brought theological and anatomical interests into alignment.15 Dissections were often performed on the bodies of executed criminals, which fulfilled the pragmatic need for corpses and aligned with the notion of the anatomy theater as a site for redeeming the criminal body – and, symbolically, fallen mankind – through the sight and knowledge of God’s work.16 It is also relevant that alongside the bible and anatomical treatise, there was a third newly emerging genre of printed material: the pornographic text and image, which historian Lynn Hunt describes as most often being used between 1500 and 1800 in the service of criticizing religious and political authorities.17

As an anatomist, scholar, publisher, brother, and uncle of prominent early Calvinists – and as a worldly courtier in contact with the circle of author Pietro Aretino, the Italian writer considered to be the founder of modern literary pornography – Estienne was working at a convergence of these currents in humanist culture.18

The three books of De dissectione

De dissectione, with sixty-two full-page woodcuts and just over four-hundred pages, comprises three books. Book One introduces anatomy not with dissection, but with a construction of the body, the noblest construction by the noblest of creators, constructed from the bones, cartilage, ligaments, nerves, muscle, veins, arteries, heart, liver, and fat, to the skin, fingernails, and hair. As throughout the treatise, and in accordance with the Renaissance belief in the anatomized body as an active participant in its own dissection and redemption, the figures are depicted alive (Figure 11.1). They are often set outside the city, next to a building or ruin, perhaps emphasizing the liminal state of these bodies – partially made or unmade, between life and death, at the margins of civilized society yet still engaged with it.

Figure 11.1 Book One showing veins and arteries. Estienne, De dissectione, 135

Once this body is made, it is unmade in Book Two, which shows inset views into the dissected body. Whereas today we would expect a catalog of body parts or a series of sections (or, more likely, a three-dimensional model generated from simulations or digitally controlled slices or scans), these woodcuts narrate the process of dissecting a single body. The series follows the order of anatomical dissection at the time, from lower abdomen to upper abdomen, throat and, finally, the head. In this way, Book Two serves as a companion to, or replacement for, a visceral encounter with a body in the anatomical theater (Figure 11.2). As the dissection progresses, the body becomes increasingly precarious, with the skin stitched to close previously opened areas and the body propped up by natural or architectural fragments whose state of ruin mirrors that of the body.

At a certain point, this body sheds its macerations and once again becomes graceful and nearly whole. Book Two turns its attention to the head, illustrated through eight figures in contrived yet elegant positions. The settings mirror this relative grace: fragments and ruins give way in part to more elaborate architectural settings that play on the ambiguity of interior and exterior. In three cases, windows frame a view to the sky, and bi-lobal and circular openings mimic the sectioned head, drawing an analogy between these two entities that offer communication between the inside and outside (Figure 11.3). The section cut through the head is always what we would call transverse – or, perhaps in Estienne’s context, a horizontal cut separating the lower from the upper, the bodily from the celestial.

Book Three opens with ten woodcuts devoted to the female reproductive system, which gives us the treatise’s only images of women. The text discusses the womb and other female anatomy, as well as techniques for handling various situations during pregnancies and births. In the woodcuts, the women display themselves in luxurious architectural settings, usually interior and above all in bedrooms with plush drapery and beds. Their legs are spread and they lounge in graceful and inviting poses, seemingly consenting to their own dissection and participating in the display of their sexual organs and interiors (Figure 11.4). In one case, a figure lifts two placentas to reveal twin fetuses in her flayed womb.19 These sexualized images comprise the work’s final new full-page woodcuts, the climactic culmination of building and dissecting the human body. Beyond this point, the book continues with detailed discussion of a few chosen parts: the eye, muscles, and spine, removed from their context of body and world and illustrated by smaller images inset in the text. Finally, the book ends with recommendations for dissection methods, tools, and the anatomy theater.

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Genius as Eros
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