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On Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

To begin with, the remarkable title of Francesca Catastini’s debut book poses somewhat of a conundrum. Vivisection is generally understood as the practice of performing anatomical operations on (living) animals for scientific purposes. In the beginning of the modern era, dissections were performed on cadavers, usually of executed convicts, a practice considered taboo before the Renaissance. But what makes the spirit vivisective, assuming that indeed we are, or have been, modern? It might have to do with the dynamic between the whole and the part, and with the peculiar bond between anatomy and spectatorship, but Catastini’s extraordinary book is not meant to offer any conclusive answer. In the postscript, written by co-editor Federica Chiocchetti (of the image-text platform The Photocaptionist), we read that the title was taken from James Joyce’s posthumously published early novel Stephen Hero. The vivisective spirit amounts to the surgical tendency of modern literature, whose focus on its own formal qualities could be seen as a form of auto-operation.

An important figure for the study of human anatomy was the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, who taught at Padua where in 1543 he published the groundbreaking multivolume De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The Vesalian “revolution”, writes Peter Sloterdijk in his magnum opus Spheres (1998–2004), might have been more important for the self-image of Western man than the oft-cited and misunderstood Copernican turn. The New Era (from the sixteenth century on) is marked by “making things explicit”—by, so to say, exteriorizing the hidden. Sloterdijk places the cognitive revolution sparked by the new anatomical incisions—enabling mankind to learn about its very own interior (which was convoluted before)—on equal footing with the world-shaking tremor of Ferdinand Magellan’s first sailing voyage around the globe (1519–22). In one telling collage, Catastini overlays a map of the Strait of Magellan with a picture of the fallopian tube, showing a pattern resembling the craggy coastline.


In her modest and handsome book, somewhat midway between paperback and hardcover, Catastini spins a speculative mental history of modern anatomy by way of association. She interlards a series of archival photographs, scientific illustrations, collages, and photographs of her own making with fifteen well-chosen citations, tacitly or explicitly pertaining to anatomy. Each of the five chapters ends with a calm view inside one of Europe’s early anatomical theatres, of sometimes eerily symmetrical harmony: the world’s first permanent one at Palazzo Bo in Padova (inaugurated in 1595), the Archiginnasio in Bologna, the Gustavianum in Uppsala, the Tieranatomisches Theater in Berlin, and the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia. Although devoid of activity, one can sense the intellectual magnitude of the scientific revolutions that once unfolded there, no less spectacular (with the cadaver as both a physical and metaphorical vanishing point) as it was instructive.

For all its serious epistemological and health achievements, Catastini playfully demonstrates some contradictions and prejudices inherent to anatomical science. In the chapter “On Looking”, for example, we find two vanitas pictures, in which death contrasts with female beauty, one allegorical frontispiece from a seventeenth-century illustrated book on anatomy, and one 1943 photograph showing an anatomy student at Johns Hopkins Medical School holding what looks like a long piece of a leg bone. Throughout the other chapters—“On Touching”, “On Canon Lust”, “On Cutting”, and “On Discovering”—there are visual puns and insightful quotations about blindness, monstrosities such as the sixth finger, and, not least of all, the gender issue and the strange misconceptions early anatomists held about the female reproductive system.

Like a consummate vivisectionist, Catastini imagined a convincing whole from so many different and disparate parts. To conclude my brief dissection, I have cut out a small part of the long quote by Francis Glisson on the inside of the cover: “The end of artificial dissection is not to mangle and cut the object it takes in hand rudely into shreds, but to gain the perfect knowledge of the same and all its parts thereby.”

Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit Is Vivisective
With a text by Federica Chiocchetti / AnzenbergerEdition, Vienna 2016 / 112 pages, 16 × 23 cm, 50 colour illustrations.

*This book review appeared in print in Camera Austria International No. 137 (March 2017), p. 85.

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