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Federico Andahazi

 

 
the anatomist

THE ANATOMIST

The Dawn of Observation


"O my America, my new-found-land!" Mateo Renaldo Colombo (or Columbus, to give him his English name) might have written in his De re anatomica.1 Not a boastful cry like "Eureka!" but rather a mournful lament, a bitter parody of his own misadventures and misfortunes, compared to his Genoese namesake, Christopher. The same surmame and, perhaps, the same destiny. But they share no common blood and the death of one takes place barely ten years after the birth of the other. Mateo's America is less distant and infinitely smaller than Christopher's; in fact, it's not much larger than the head of a nail. And yet, it was to remain secreted away until the year of the death of its discoverer and, in spite of its insignificant size, its discovery was, equally momentous and disturbing.
It is the Age of the Renaissance. The verb is “To Discover”. It is the twilight of pure a priori speculation and the abuse of syllogisms, and the dawn of empiricism, of knowledge based on what can be seen. It is, quite precisely, the dawn of observation. Perhaps Francis Bacon in England and Campanella in the Kingdom of Naples chanced upon the fact that while scholastics were lost in syllogistic labyrinths, the illiterate Rodrigo de Triana was, at the same time, shouting "Land!" and, without knowing it, heralding in a new philosophy based on observation. Scholasticism (as the Church had finally understood) was not profitable enough or, at least seemed less useful than the sale of indulgences, ever since God had decided to soak money out of sinners.
The new science is good as long as it helps to bring in gold. It is good as long as it doesn't contradict the truth of Holy Writ or, what is even more important, a magistrate‘s writ of property. Just as the sun no longer spun its path around the Earth (something which obviously didn't stop happening from one moment to the next), geometry had begun to chafe against the confines of its own paper landscape and had set off to colonize the three-dimensional space of topology. Thi is the greatest achievement of Renaissance painting; if Nature is written in mathematical characters (as Galileo says), painting must be the source of a new vision of Nature. The Vatican frescoes are a mathematical epic: witness, the conceptual abyss that separates Lorenzo de Monaco's Nativity from The Triumph of the Cross over the apse of the Capella della Pieta. For similar reasons, not a single map is left unchanged. The cartography of Heaven changes as well as that of Earth and that of the body. Here now are the anatomical maps that have become the new navigational charts of surgery. And thus we return to our Mateo Colombo.
Encouraged perhaps by the fact of sharing a name with the Genoese admiral. Mateo Colombo decided that his destiny, too, was to discover. And so he set off to sea. Of course, his waters were not those of his namesake. He was the greatest anatomical explorer of his time; among his more modest discoveries is nothing less than the circulation of the blood, anticipating by half a century the Englishman Harvey's demonstration in De motus cordes et sanguinis. And yet, even this astonishing discovery is of little importance compared to his America.
The fact is that Mateo Colombo was never able to see his discovery in print, since his book was not allowed to appear until the very year of his death, in 1559. One had to be careful with the Doctors of the Church. The cautionary examples are almost too numerous. Three years earlier, Lucio Vanini "chose" to be burned by the Inquisition in spite of (or because of) his statement declaring that he would not give his opinion on the immortality of the soul until he became "old, rich and German-.”2 And certainly Mateo Colombo's discovery was far more dangerous than Lucio Vanini's opinion—even without considering the aversion our anatomist felt toward fire and the stench of burnt flesh. above all if the flesh was his own.

The Century of Women


The sixteenth century was the century of women. The seed sowed a hundred years earlier by Christine de Pisan flowered throughout Europe with the sweet scent of The Sayinge of True Lovers. It is certainly not by chance that Mateo Colombo's discovery took place when and where it did. Until the sixteenth century, history had been recounted in a deep masculine voice. "Wherever one looks, there she is, always present; from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, always on the domestic, economic, intellectual, and public stage, on the battlefront and in moments of private leisure, we find the Woman. Usually, she is busy at her daily tasks. But she is also present in the events that build, transform or tear apart society. From one end to the other of the social spectrum, she occupies all places and those who watch her constantly speak of her presence, often with fear," write Natalie Zemon and Arlette Farge in their History of Women.3
Mateo Colombo's discovery happens precisely when women, whose place had always been indoors, began to conquer, gradually and subtly, the world outside, emerging from behind the walls of convents and retreats, from whorehouses or from the warm but no less monastic sweetness of home. Timidly, woman dares argue with man. With some exaggeration, it has been said that the "battle of the sexes" begins in the sixteenth century. Whether this is true or not, this is the age in wich womanly matters become an acceptable subject for discussion among men.
Under these circumstances, what was Mateo Colombo‘s "America"? No doubt, the borders between discovery and invention are far more vague than they might seem at first glance. Mateo Colombo (the time has come to say it) discovered that which every man has dreamt of at some moment or other: the magic key that unlocks women's hearts, the secret that governs the mysterious driving force of female love; that which, from the beginnings of History, wizards and witches, shamans and alchemists, have sought by means of brews, all manner of herbs or through the favor of gods or demons; that which every man in love has always longed for, when wounded, through unkindness, by the object of his troubles and sorrows. And also, of course, that which is dreamt, of by kings and rulers in their sheer lust for omnipotence: namely, the instrument that subjugates the volatile female will. Mateo Colombo searched, traveled and finally found the "sweet land" he longed for: "the organ that governs the love of women." The Amor Veneris (such is the name the anatomist gave it, "if I may be allowed to give a name to the things by me discovered") was the true source of power over the slippery, shadowy free will of women. Certainly, such a finding had many serious consequences. "To what calamities would Christianity not be subjected it the female object of sin were to fall into the hands of the hosts of Satan?" the scandalized Doctors of the Church asked. "What would become of the profítable business of prostitution if any poor hunchback might obtain the love of the most expensive of courtesans?" asked the rich proprietors of the splendid Venetian brothels. And, worst of all, what would happen if the daughters of Eve were to discover that, between their legs, they carried the keys to both Heaven and Hell?
The discovery of Mateo Colombo's America was, all things considered, an epic counterpointed by an elegy. Mateo Colombo was as fierce and heartless as Christopher. Like Christopher (to use an appropriate metaphor) he was a brutal colonizer who claimed for himself all rights to the discovered land, the female body.
Beyond what Amor Veneris meant to society, another controversy was sparked by what it was really supposed to be. Did the organ discovered by Mateo Colombo actually exist? Perhaps this is a useless question wich must be replaced by another: did the Amor Veneris ever exist? Ultimately, things are nothing but the words that name them. Amor Veneris, vel Dulcedo Apeletur (the full name with which its discoverer christened the organ) had a strong heretical ring to it. The question of whether the Amor Veneris coincides with the less apostate and more neutral kleitoris ("tickling"), which alludes to effects rather than causes, is one that would later concern historians of the body. The Amor Veneris existed for reasons other than anatomical; it existed not only because it inaugurated a New Woman but also because it sparked a tragedy.
What follows is the story of a discovery.
What follows is the chronicle of a tragedy.

1 De re anatomica, Venice, 1559,Bk XI, Ch. XVI.
2 A. Weber, A History of European Philosophy.
3 A History of Women in the West, Harvard, 1993.

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