“Our life is made by the death of others.” - The anatomist and anatomical wax modeler Anna Morandi Manzolini

21 January 1714, 300 years ago, the anatomist and anatomical wax modeler Anna Morandi Manzolini was born in Bologna.

“Our life is made by the death of others.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Anatomically correct self-portrait in wax of Anna Morandi Manzolini at work

That dissecting a human body was prohibited under canonical law during the Middle Ages, both Christian as well as Islamic, is very probably a myth. The often quoted papal bull dating back to 1299 called Detestande feritatis ("Of detestable cruelty"), that was interpreted in the 19th century as ban for all anatomical studies on dead human bodies because it would endanger the resurrection of the flesh was actually aimed against the practice of boiling dead bodies to bury the bones elsewhere. No documents describing the persecution of an anatomist have surfaced so far. However, reference material was scarce during those days and the insights of Hellenistic authorities – Rome had a prohibition in place since 150 BCE – were usually known but could only be studied by a selected few. The advent of the printing press during the 15th century changed matters radically and the spread of knowledge and individual research results from all over Europe became available to scientists and could be built upon for further studies. Science in general made a quantum leap during these days and anatomy was no exception. Anatomical theatres became quite a fashion during the 17th century, where public lectures were held and results discussed and dissection took root in science as well as in the arts, many Renaissance painters took anatomy lessons and Leonardo, universal genius that he was, surpassed most anatomists in precision of depicting his perceptions.

Anna Morandi Manzolini: wax model of a human hand and arm **

Bologna had quite a tradition in anatomical studies and dissection, dating back to the 16th century at least, hosting such worthies as the “Second Aristotle” Alessandro Achillini (1463 – 1512) and the pioneer of pathology Antonio Benivieni (1443 – 1502) and when the anatomist Giovanni Manzolini married his childhood love Anna Morandi there in 1734, it was probably a match made in scientific heaven. The happy couple started making wax models of human bodies with bones at the core, not yet very detailed, and Anna finally had her breakthrough as an artist as well as an anatomist with her wax models of the female reproductive systems and the process of birth that were used for training doctors and midwives. When Giovanni died in 1755 and Anna had to find means to support herself and her family, she was already well known in professional circles, but turned down various offers of other European universities and stayed in her native Bologna and taught anatomy.

Anna Morandi Manzolini: wax model of a human ear

Besides her incredibly detailed wax models, Anna Morandi Manzolini created more mainstream works of art as well, busts of local notables as well as the rather unusual self-portrait showing her dissecting a human brain. Anna died at the age of 60 in her native Bologna, highly honoured all over Europe from London to Vienna and Austria.

* Her self-portrait above is exhibited at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, together with many of her and her husband’s creations as part of the anatomical collection of the Bologna Istituto delle Scienze.

* ** The picture was found on their website http://www.museopalazzopoggi.unibo.it/index.do – well worth a visit, too –and more on: