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One of the Anatomical Machines in Naples (photograph by Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy)
For numerous travelers, Naples is the darkest gem of the Old Continent, concealing in its streets countless artifacts of a macabre nature. With skulls, bones, petrified saints, and holy blood, the iconography of death seems to have spread everywhere. Moreover, Naples is paved with obscure legends. Behind every door, under each alcove, vivid tales linger on, tangling together the Italian aristocracy, exalted quests for knowledge, and, of course, cold blooded murders. Included in these is the story of the Anatomical Machines.
Located in the basement of the Sansevero Chapel in the historic district of Naples, the bodies of two people, a man and a woman, stand in an elaborate display. Their skin and their muscles are gone, leaving them open and naked. Yet they proudly present their vascular systems, their skeletons, and some of them inner organs.
It's evident that our couple is not an object of devotion, so their dramatic internal nudity in one of the most sumptuous chapels in town is paradoxical. Who are these two people and why is their anatomy displayed in this sacred place?
Werner Herzog's "Death for Five Voices" (1995) (The gate keeper scene and the visit to the chapel are at the beginning of the extract.)
I remember encountering the Anatomical Machines for the first time in Death for Five Voices, Werner Herzog's documentary on Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, a late Renaissance composer famous for his haunting madrigals and the gruesome murder he committed on his wife and her lover. Caught in flagrante delicto, the unfaithful Donna Maria d'Avalos and her paramour were hacked in bed by several sword hits in the Palazzo Sensevero. In Herzog’s film, a gate keeper of this very palace described Gesualdo as "a demon and an alchemist" who, after the murder, embalmed the guilty couple. His "original sin" tableau was then installed in the Sansevero Chapel.
This same myth also appears in a painting by American visionary artist Joe Coleman that retraces the epic life of Gesualdo. The Macchine Anatomiche are visible in the center, on the left side of the iconic murderer portrait:
Joe Coleman, "Tebebrae for Gesualdo" (2004) (via JoeColeman.com)
But digging a bit into the historical realities of Naples' past cuts short the Gesualdo myth. Notary deeds enabled researchers to trace the origin of the Anatomical Machines to 1763, more than a century after Gesualdo’s death. In fact, the embalmed bodies were commissioned by Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, the same nobleman who also sponsored the reconstruction of the Sansevero Chapel. This reconstruction gave the sanctuary a new layout and the glorious appeal it has today. And also, the two anatomical preparations.
The goal of these "anatomical machines" (Macchine Anatomiche) made in the Enlightenment was to unveil the mechanics of the body, highlighting how organs function in interaction with each other. Therefore the "machines" were meant to show how the heart, as the center of the vascular system, distributed blood everywhere in the body through a network of veins and arteries. Something which, at the time, was invisible unless you attended an actual autopsy.
Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, Artist Unknown (via Atlas Obscura)
Raimondo di Sangro, Prince de Sansevero, is an iconic figure of Naples wrapped in an aura of mysteries. Described as “the Napolitaen incarnation of Doctor Faustus,” the prince was an indefatigable inventor and scientist obsessed by mechanics, physics, chemistry, and anatomy. But his hermetic mind also turned him to alchemy and Freemasonry, which explains some of the symbolic elements adorning the chapel today. He's acknowledged for a plethora of inventive devices like an "Eternal Flame" of colored fireworks, and an amphibian coach that could travel over both land and sea.
The anatomical machines are at the crossroads of all his interests. As an 18th century guide stated, Di Sangro is said to have worked hand-in-hand with anatomist Giuseppe Salerno. In his laboratory, the Prince is said to have found an alchemic process to materialize the vascular system by injecting a mercury-based substance that would allow a “metallization” of blood vessels. The stupendous technique could be celebrated as a predecessor of Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds plastination if the “black legend” of Di Sangro didn’t complicate this tale a bit ...
One of the Anatomical Machines (photograph by Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy)
What is this black legend? Well, according to popular story, Di Sangro allegedly got a pregnant servant and her lover murdered so that he could experiment with his metallization process on vivisected bodies. He then kept his models in his personal Apartment of the Phoenix in the palace, until being relocated to Sansevero Chapel. Other stories assert that he killed no less than seven cardinals in order to use their bones and skin to make seven chairs, and that he arranged his own resurrection through a post-mortem alchemic process in which he had to be sliced in pieces and placed in a chest.
The Anatomical Machines, as they are presented in the Sansevero Chapel (via Atlas Obscura)
Nowadays, several contemporary scholars consider the possibility that the Di Sangro himself was the origin of theses rumors, building his own mythology to gain eternal notoriety. In 2008, UCL-London researchers Renata Peters and Lucia Dacome analyzed samples of the Anatomical Machines from the artery networks. What they found was stunning: the veins were manufactured out of beeswax, pigments, and silk fibers, all articulated on iron wire. No mercury was found, and nothing organic remained. Nothing expect the skeletons belonged to a real human.
The Anatomical Machines were artificially fabricated by Salerno. If it tames their incredible story, it still shows the incredible craftsmanship that went into copying nature’s complex engineering. If our modern science has deciphered a trick of history, it has also shifted the Anatomical Machines from the realm of myth to the realm of the sublime.