Abjection Sustained: Dery visits Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria


Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

Unloved, underfunded, and more or less untended, the Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria---"National Museum of Healthcare," in your correspondent's me-talk-pretty-someday Italian---is, like so many of Italy's obscure museological gems, a study in abjection.

The Museo is housed in a 17th-century building, in the middle of a complex that some claim constitutes the oldest hospital in Europe: the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, erected in around 1198 by Pope Innocenzo III on the site of the Borgo Sassia, a hotel-cum-hospital for pilgrims to the nearby Holy City. "Its historic memory as an institution, recorded on its walls in frescoes ranging from the 15th to the 18th century, goes back to the 13th," writes Milton Gendel in his article "Rome's Unknown Museum Of The Holy Ghost" (PDF). But "the history of the hospital and hospitality on the site is at least five hundred years older than that," he notes. "Nero's grandmother, Agrippina, owned a suburban villa here on the right bank of the Tiber, and it was on this land that her son Gaius, known as Caligula, built his circus. In Nero's reign, St. Peter was crucified head down in the middle of the race track, having been condemned for proselityzing the Christian religion, which was held to be an anti-state activity before the Emperor Constantine, three centuries later, was himself converted." (Somewhere, Sam Harris heaves a sigh of regret for All That Might Have Been...)

During the 15th century, the hospital accepted unwanted babies via a revolving drum built into a wall, which enabled mothers to make ATM-style deposits anonymously by pushing their babies through, then yanking a bellpull, which alerted nuns on the other side. The foundlings were reared as wards of the hospital. "If the consigner did not care to remain unknown a receipt was given," writes Gendel. Either way, "the child was tattooed on the right foot with the double-armed cross of Santo Spirito."

Images Manfredini-Model The Museo is of interest to us because of the Sala Flajani, whose heart is the anatomical collection of the physician Giuseppe Flaiani (1741-1808). A musty salon whose four walls are lined with antique cabinets, it contains dried anatomical preparations; the odd---and I do mean odd---fetus swimming in preservative, its features blurred by decay; a collection of stones removed from the livers, kidneys, and bladders of Santo Spirito patients during the 19th century (collect them all!); and some wax anatomical models executed in the late 1700's by the sculptor Giovanni Battista Manfredini in collaboration with the anatomist Carlo Mondini. (Mondini is best known for his research on the anatomy of the eye and on the causes of deafness; he identified the congenital deformation of the inner ear known as Mondini's dysplasia. But what endears him to me is his 1777 discovery of the location of eel ovaries, "which for centuries had been sought after in vain," according to an 1879 U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries report. Who knew?) Manfredini is renowned---okay, renowned among medical historians and connoisseurs of the irretrievably weird---for his terracotta obstetric models, a set of which are installed in the Museo Universitario di Storia Naturale e della Strumentazione Scientifica in Modena, Italy. With expressions familiar from the iconography of Catholic kitsch, yet posed salaciously, like anatomical strippers---one model peels back her flesh to expose her gravid womb---Manfredini's women inspire a kind of semiotic indigestion. And that, as Martha would say, is A Good Thing.

We orbit the room, taking in the dessicated fetus, a mummified Alien Gray, old beyond imagining yet so young it never saw its first birthday. A time traveller frozen in the wind tunnel of years, it leans into the oncoming days.

Dessicated Fetus

We stare at a jaunty trio of malformed doll skeletons sharing a joke: one is talking his arms off, living up to the Italian stereotype, while his death's-headed friend grins broadly, as all gaping skulls do.

Jaunty Trio Of Malformed Doll Skeletons

We look pityingly at a pair of pickled foetuses clinging to each other in a bottle of formalin, the Romulus and Remus of the carnival midway.

Pair Of Pickled Foetuses

A full-sized wax model of a man stops us dead in our tracks, his body unzipped from his upper lip all the way to his groin, the flaps of flesh peeled back for our edification. But he has the last laugh, waggling his tongue obscenely, eyes closed, savoring the moment.

Man With Tongue

Weirdest of all is a display of two crudely sculpted clay heads, fitted with false teeth and glass eyes. They'd look more at home on a Santería altar than here, in the inner sanctum of an 18th-century medical museum. Beside them lolls what appears to be a skinned, inexpertly stuffed human infant, head propped pensively on its hand.

Weird Display 1-1

The Sala Flajani is Jame Gumb's idea of a garage sale. A cabinet of wonders curated by Joe Coleman. The waiting room for Disney's Haunted Mansion, as reimagined by Julia Kristeva. Or all, or none, of the above. Perhaps Babelfish puts it best, with that crackbrained, syntactically fractured robot wisdom that sometimes manages, by dumb machine luck, to eff the ineffable. Translating the museum's webpage, it describes the Sala Flajani as housing "a merciless sample of birth deformity or morbid. These preparations anatomo-pathological...include skulls of fetuses and small skeletons, some of which macrocephaly and a two-man. In addition to this overview of deformities in wood shelving in the purest pink empire is gathering a collection of wax."

And what macrocephalic two-man, anywhere in our purest pink empire, can argue with that?

Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria
Lungotevere in Sassia, 3 (Ospedale S. Spirito) 00193 Roma
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday - 09:00-12:00
Admission: Free.
Informazioni e prenotazioni:
Tel 06.6787864 - Fax 06.6991453
Autobus: fermata Piazza Pia - Castel Sant'Angelo,
Linee 40 e 62 fermata Lungotevere in Sassia - S. Spirito,
Linee 46, 62, 644, 98, 870, 881, 916
Metro: Linea A fermata Cipro Musei Vaticani

There appears to be a book about the museum---in Italian only, regrettably.

Photo above of Terracotta obstetric model by Giovanni Battista Manfredini. Copyright Museo Universitario di Storia Naturale e della Strumentazione Scientifica, Modena, Italy; all rights reserved. Reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.



  1. I really, really misread the title. I thought it was the Museo Storico Nazionale dell’Arte Santería. This is just as interesting, though.

  2. “They’d look more at home on a Santería altar than here…” Actually, I defy you to find one actual Santería (called Lucumí, in fact) altar where “two crudely sculpted clay heads” would be at home. Ah, but the point here is not to inform but entertain. I suppose folks writing about the history of science are always looking for foils among the ‘primitives’ to make what they see in European museums appear less shocking and barbarous. An ignorant slur in an otherwise pleasantly diverting piece.

  3. This, I suspect, is what I had in mind:
    >>Elegua Head Statue: These heads represent Papa Legba/Eshu/Elegua in Voodoo and Santeria. Made of course clay with Cowrie shells baked into its surface to represent the facial features of Elegua, this 5″ tall and 3 ” wide figure is perfect for watching over your home. Place it by a doorway to open the way to opportunities and store magical herbs and ritual components within, to help you find those opportunities that you desire. $24.50< < http://www.thepumpkinandthecauldron.com/voodoosanteria.htm

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