In 2018 in Padua, Italy, it has been inaugurated the new installation at the Museum Giovanni Battista Morgagni for their section about Pathological Anatomy. The museum, dedicated to the doctor considered as the founder of pathological anatomy in its contemporary form, contains over 1,500 different types of evidence which illustrate several pathologies and malformations. A visitor passing by the illuminated display cases could notice, between the skulls and the human bones, the gloomy head of a blonde girl surrounded by snakes.
Below: illustration of Giovanni Battista Morgagni, Anatomicorum Princeps
In Padua during winter 1863, a 18 years old seamstress threw herself into the river which runs under the windows of the University of the city. The corpse was recovered from the river with some harpoons and taken back to the bank. The name of the girl was unknown as well as the reason why she took her life but, at the time, they thought it was due to a love story ended badly or a violent boyfriend. The girl was an ordinary person, guilty to have committed an unacceptable gesture for the Catholic moral. There were all the prerequisites for her story to be forgot very soon.
Instead though, the rumour of the girl got all the way to Lodovico Brunetti professor of Pathological Anatomy at the University if Padua. At the time the man was experimenting the method of tannization, a system through which it was possible to preserve the body: the samples were treated with sulfuric ether and tannic acid melted in distilled water, so that the tissues would have been defatted. The procedure, despite it was giving great result, was abandoned after the death of professor Brunetti for the complexity in its realisation.
The professor asked for the body of the young suicide girl to be take to him so that he could make of it an anatomical test. Brunetti created a plaster cast of the face and bust of the girl, then he detached from the body the skin of the face, head and neck. The flesh was treated with tannic acid and then adjusted onto the cast, trying to recreate the look of her when she was still alive. Two glass eyes were added inside the empty eye sockets but the final result did not satisfy its creator: there were many visible tears on the skin due to the hooks through which the body had been take back to the bank of the river.
To solve the problem and save the overall aesthetic of the test, Brunetti inserted some branches at the side of the bust, around which he placed two mummified snakes and set in a way to aim to her eyes and through her blonde hair. The points of contact between snakes and the skin of the girl got hidden with many drops of red wax, simulating blood. From that moment on, the composition took the name of “the Punished Suicide, to pass it off as a divine punishment reserved to those who were taking their life before time.
Brunetti showed the “tannized” bust to the parents of the young seamstress and they congratulated with him for the accuracy with which the professor had recreated the appearance of their daughter. The face of the girl though was not destined to remain a simple allegory of death confined within the laboratory of an university professor. In 1867 Brunetti asked to his University the necessary funds to take his creation in France and exhibit it during the Exposition Universelle of Paris. The anatomical test was therefore showed to the world and gave to its creator the Gran Prix for the Arts and Crafts.
The Punished Suicide could and still can be considered as a piece of artistic anatomy, where the attempt of preserving a body from the decomposition embraced the willingness to come up with a piece aesthetically pleasing and at the same time useful from a moral point of view, working as an Allegory for the Afterlife.
It was common during the 19th century that art and medicine would join together, revolving around themes like anatomy lessons, trendy matters since many centuries. Artists such as Édouard Manet, that in 1856 produced a copy of “the Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp” by Rembrandt, and Thomas Eakins who painted “the Gross Clinic” in 1875 and “the Agnew Clinic” in 1889, both representing surgical operations carried out in front of an audience.
The theme of the dead girl used as an artistical and anatomical subject at the same time, can be found in the painting “Anatomy of the Heart” of the Spanish Enrique Simonet from 1980. The painting shows a doctor busy while examining the heart which has just extracted from the chest of the young woman laying in front of him, dead yet still attractive.
What mainly strike the modern eye is the enthusiasm with which the Punished Suicide was welcomed more that a century ago.
The Italian average citizen of the 21st century would be horrified at the thought of the body of a dead girl used to create a statue, but the positive reception and success that the test gained does nothing but stressing out how quickly the mankind is able to change his own mind, in this case about death; from 1900 onwards the concept has been gradually removed from culture and exiled only to the medical environment. Today a project of the kind would appear as completely amoral, yet the eyes of curious passers-by still keeps on laying on that face: a girl like many others, without a name, that science, art and moral have wanted to make immortal.