The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

by Francesca Catastini

The Modern Spirit Is Vivisective ventures into the history of the study of anatomy, concentrating in particular on the phenomenon of public dissection, and taking anatomical theatres as its starting point. Public anatomies of executed convicts took place in specific theatres, called anatomical theatres, almost once a year, from the end of the XVI until the XVIII century, in front of students, professors, dignitaries and paying audiences as well. These places, characterised by a perpetual accumulation of time, belong now to the realm of foucauldian heterotopias, reaching beyond their physical and temporal present.
Delving into architecture, both of the body and of the scene of inquiry, the work is also a reflection on the role of vision in the graph of power and knowledge in Western culture. The former scopic geometry of these ancient anatomy halls responded to the logic of spectacle. The public was essential, as a collective witness of the mysteries of the human body. Gaze there acquired a specific status, framing a sort of unified perception, where both professionals and lay audiences shared the same view and the same experience.
The process of dissecting followed the logic of fragmentation, based on the analytical principle according to which the comprehension of an object goes through its decomposition into segments. In other words, public dissection was a practical and physical dismembering of a whole (the body) in order to get to a mental recomposition of it.