For the past week, I’ve been at the International Congress for the History of Science and Technology, held at the Praia Vermelha (“red beach”) campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are a lot of cats on the campus. I don’t know their background; they seem to be strays, but are well fed and cared for. I’ve been taking pictures of them for days; here’s a selection.
The cats liked to sleep around parked cars. They followed the sun.
They seemed completely uninterested in people.
But people were interested in them.
There was a shelter set up, with food and water.
And newspaper-lined boxes because cats like boxes. They were under the care of an organization for stray animals.
The university did not seem particularly happy about their presence.
But this one-eyed ginger boy seemed supremely unconcerned.
I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.
About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.
The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.
According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife. Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands. Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.
I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo. I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil. I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.
Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679. Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.
Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay. Here is one, of a jaguar. The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Sorry I missed it!
Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola. With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678). Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna. Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s. Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).
Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.
Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.
Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso. I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist). I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.
Last month, artist Lisa Temple-Cox had a residency at Oregon State for two weeks as part of the Horning Series on “The Material Body” that I organized this academic year. Among the numerous talks and demonstrations she gave was this collaborative talk with art historian Glenn Harcourt on a joint project they are calling “Vesalius in Wonderland.” During the talk, Glenn describes the project while Lisa does a life-size copy of one of Vesalius’s illustrations. A video of the talk is here.
Accompanying the talk was a copy of the new English translation of Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s landmark 1543 work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books. The translation is full, folio size, beautifully printed with detailed reproductions of the original illustrations. You can see some samples here. The Horning Endowment funded the purchase of this volume by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU, where the talk took place.
In the latest issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter, I talked about how historians of science can, and should, apply for research grants from the National Science Foundation. You can read the essay here.
Want an intriguing dessert from the past to satisfy your present day holiday palate? Serve the syllabub: a cream-based treat, mixed with sweet wine and lemon juice, then whipped with cream until frothy, and garnished with a seasonal herb. The acids, which rise from the lemons to firm the cream, then separate from the wine, which sinks into a two-part delectable sweet course. Syllabub, wine mixed with well-whisked cream, originates from the name Sille, a wine-growing region in France known for its sweet wine, and bub, an English slang word for a bubbling drink.
Eighteenth-century English cooks whisked syllabubs into a froth then placed the mixture into a pot to separate. Next, the mixture was spooned through a fine sieve to drain, oftentimes overnight. Before serving to guests, the creamy foam was topped with a splash of…
[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]
Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection. In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves. The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.
But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies. Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.
Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers. The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.
An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification. An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”
The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,” urban animals. But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables. Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons. Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection. Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive. And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function. These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.
Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents. The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row. In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood. Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice. Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen. The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.
From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité. Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.
On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland. Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution. Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife. According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured. Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.
The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect. Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate. We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it. But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.
He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton. In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton. He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton). Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.
In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book. As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water. After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days. Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.
Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest. He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh. “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began. The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.
The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat. The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults. “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”
Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur. The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit. One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.
The bones should not be allowed to dry too much. If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed. He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection. An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.
With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).
The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.