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The Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero

 

The so-called anatomical machines of the Raimondo di Sangro, the Prince of Sansevero (1710-1771), on display at the Museo Capella Sansevero in Naples, are two anatomical models, of a man and a woman, which depict the system of blood vessels of the human body. They were manufactured by the anatomist Giuseppe Salerno in the 1760s and believed to be the result of anatomical preparations based on a technique known as ‘anatomical injection’ (injection of embalming substances). 

Sansevero’s anatomical machines have gradually become the protagonists of legends according to which the models were the outcome of an operation of human vivisection in which a woman and a man were killed through the injection of embalming substances in their blood vessels. Due to lack of written documentation on the early history of the anatomical machines, controversy about how they were actually made continues.

This project addresses this controversy by combining examination and instrumental analysis of raw materials and manufacturing techniques of the models with historic research.

Investigation into the raw materials and manufacturing techniques of the anatomical machines took place in tandem with historic research on the activities of the Prince of Sansevero. The social-historic aspects of the research informed the examination and instrumental analysis of the pieces, and vice-versa. This integration posed new questions but also provided new insights into the understanding of the material fabric of the models and the context in which they were created.

Examination

The heirs of Sansevero and current owners of the Sansevero Chapel hold all rights relating to the anatomical machines. Authorization for examination and sampling was kindly granted after detailed negotiations and the submission of a comprehensive work plan. The models show a complex and delicate network of arteries, veins and capillaries of different thicknesses, colours and lengths. Bones are held together with metal pins, nails and wires. Most of the bones are present in both figures but many of them seem either very or slightly out of place.

The skulls were sawed open and hinges were placed on either sides so that the skulls could be opened and seen inside, where a complex network of blood vessels is also present.

The appearance of the womb suggests that the woman may have died either while or after giving birth. No pubic symphysis (joint at the front of the pelvis) could be seen between the two bones of her pelvis.

Analysis carried out at the Institute of Archaeology - summary

Vessels from the two models were sampled in different areas. The samples were studied under transmitted and polarized light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR). The results of these analyses show that the vessels have a core made out of a metal wire twisted with fibres, and coated with a mixture of pigmented waxes (Fig 1).

No evidence was found to indicate that the anatomical machines were made following the techniques of injections. Likewise, no evidence was found to indicate that the models were injected with embalming substances.

The evidence uncovered during this study indicates that the circulatory system was artificially fabricated with a mixture of pigmented waxes (mostly beeswax), an iron wire and silk fibres, probably following techniques commonly used by anatomists of that time.

This project was carried out in collaboration with Lucia Dacome, for more information please contact Renata Peters.

If you are interested in this project you should read:
Dacome, L & Peters, R. 2008. Fabricating the body: the anatomical machines of the Prince of
Sansevero. In Greene, V. (ed) Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 14, 2007.Objects Specialty Group of the AIC: Washington, 161-177

Blood vessels Figure 1 - Samples were collected from different areas of the network of blood vessels. After having had the wax layer scraped off (top), the core was shown to be made of an iron wire twisted with silk fibres

 

 

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the owners of the Sansevero Chapel and Museum for kindly granting authorization for examination and sampling of the Anatomical Machines. Thanks are also due to UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, sponsors of this project.