While researching my latest book, I've come across quite a bit of material on the study of anatomy in the Regency era. One of my protagonists was a surgeon and has taken up the profession of anatomist. Science and medicine at the time was on the verge of great discoveries, but society's aversion to studying the human body after death made it difficult for the medical community to perform their research. During this time only the corpses of executed criminals could be dissected for medical research. In London alone this amounted to about 50 cadavers, but demand far outweighed the supply which led to the rise of resurrection men, or grave robbers. The fear of grave robbers became so great in fact that families often guarded the corpse until it was sufficiently decomposed and thus useless for dissection. They also used Mortsafes, an iron cage, around the coffin until decomposition occurred, but only the rich could afford such measures.
In 1828 two infamous resurrection men, Burke and Hare, committed at least 17 murders, selling the unusually fresh corpses to anatomists in Scotland. Both were arrested and executed, and ironically, Burke's body was publicly dissected in Edinburgh, his skeleton and death mask are still on display at the Royal College of Surgeon's museum. It wasn't until 1832 that Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, allowing the delivery of unclaimed bodies to anatomy schools. And while dissection was legitimized, the poor remained fearful of being snatched after death. The study of anatomy was nothing new during the Regency however. Leonardo da Vinci dissected and studied around 30 corpses between 1506 and 1511. Though after his anatomist mentor died of plague in 1511 he abandoned his anatomical project and sadly his notes and intricate drawings remained undiscovered for centuries. While slightly gruesome in their subject matter, these are some of my favorite works of art.
I've always been fascinated by the study of anatomy. While in college, among the various art classes required for my degree (Art History), I took a life drawing class. And while we sketched live models we also examined anatomical drawings to gain a better understanding of muscles and tendons that comprise the contours of the human form. While these drawings are somewhat macabre, I have always found them quite beautiful in their intricacy.
During my extensive research (I perhaps got a little carried away with this subject as I delved deeper) I came across the Anatomical Venus, an 18th century wax figure that could be peeled away to uncover the musculature and organs within the human body. The most striking thing about these wax figures is not the anatomical depictions however; it is their almost erotic poses and expressions. They were adorned with human hair and jewelry, looking as they were in the throes of ecstasy at the moment of dissection. So yes, they are slightly disturbing, but beautiful none the less. And while a knee jerk reaction might be to condemn eroticizing these figures, at the time this would have been indicative of religious art which often times had similar expressions depicting a sacred, mystical experience rather than an erotic one.
I had never really thought of anatomy as an art form, but clearly it is when you look at the plethora of works created over the centuries. It is a true marriage of art and science.