A new perspective on anatomical theaters

An interview with Chiara Ianeselli

1 APRIL 2017,
Gare du Nord - Veduta d'insieme
Gare du Nord - Veduta d'insieme

Chiara Ianeselli is an independent curator based in Italy. After having obtained her degree in cultural Heritage at the University of Trento, she has been involved in the organization of exhibitions in various galleries and institutions. She also worked for the 2012 edition of Artissima, in Turin. Recently, she has initiated the project Les Gares, researching on anatomical theaters of Europe. In this thorough interview she explains, in detail, this unprecedented project.

What led you towards such an ambitious goal?

The Les Gares project was born at the end of 2014 when I visited the Waag’s Theatrum Anatomicum for an astrophysics conference, in Amsterdam. Only after I sat down and I was admiring the equipment codes of the Dutch surgeons on the octagonal roof, I understood the use of that place: a space built by men to study men, a huge architectonic mirror. I started studying the history of the theatre on different publications. I then organised a meeting with the Waag Society which superintended the theatre (a Fablab including a biochemistry laboratory and much more), in order to understand the different present functions; I suggested to meet a surgeon who specialised in the history of anatomy and anatomic dissections, and other ‘specialised’ experts on the subject”, in order to start a network of possible contacts and explorers. Once I gathered different subjects, I started thinking about an exhibition with specific interventions that would continue in time in order to build a map of all anatomical theaters in the world, that might have been transformed or destroyed, according to the traces they have left behind. In parallel with these studies, I soon noticed the lacks on the subject: there is no publication that unites the building and development of these ‘anatomical churches’, to which we owe a lot as far as the discoveries about human beings are concerned.

What new perspectives can be added to the anatomical theatre in our century?

I don’t think there is a univocal view of the ‘classical’ anatomical theatre, as each of them had and still has its own identity, history, origins a cultural milieu and all the schools that originated from it. The idea of a public dissection that became an event for the city, where the public authority was invited, as happened for the Anatomical Theatre of Bologna, brings up some interesting questions on a sociological and philosophical point of view. There are different exhibitions (such as “Spectacular Bodies”, Hayward Gallery, 2000; “Il Teatro dei corpi”, Biblioteca Marciana, 2004/2005, “Rappresentare il corpo”, Museo di Palazzo Poggi dell'Università di Bologna, 2004/2005, and the Wellcome Collection exhibitions) which deepened the relationship between art and anatomy, starting from the artistic representation of the human body to then reach different settings. I don’t think that the inter-disciplinary aspect and the opening to a different audience can be considered as a contemporary prerogative, as well as the involvement of the artists (who were invited to decorate these theatres or to interpret their content in the past, too). The performing aspect and the presence of spectators were already written in the ritual aspect of the anatomical dissection. I rather think it is a pressing necessity to insist on the places themselves in order to study their evolution and to be informed: the instruments of knowledge we have nowadays (and the opportunity to spread this knowledge to different profiles), allow us to develop an organic diachronic vision of these theaters. I don’t think we need to move to a contemporary vision of these spaces, as they are contemporary already.

The exhibition in Padua is the third chapter of an international project. Are there any other scheduled for new exhibitions?

After the exhibitions in Amsterdam, 2015 and Bologna, 2015/16, the project has reached Padua, inside the Anatomical Theatre of Palazzo del Bo, the most ancient that got preserved until today (1595). Les Gares is also a mapping project, not only geographical, of all anatomical theaters. I am concurrently leading different researches, moving on different levels, involving different researchers. There isn’t a single interest towards the theaters themselves, these environments are often extinct in different cities and their disappearance is really interesting to me, as much as the ones that have survived. Therefore, I am also working in this direction. Furthermore, I have recently had the opportunity to share different material in a research group I am a member of, called: THESA (Theaters Science Anatomy).

The exhibition can be visited on two different levels: both historical and contemporary. How should the visitor approach it, from you point of view?

I don’t think there are specific limits that allow us to precisely identify one from the other. The information carried by the visitor, as well as their genetics, their behaviour are layered elements, as is the history of the building itself: it is difficult to identify and discriminate. The exhibition in Padua is focused on the idea of vision, studying levels, perspectives, instruments and shapes. Alberto Burri’s (Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri), Nicola Samorì’s and Gustave Joseph Witkowski’s works indirectly investigate sight levels, constantly moving the asset of vision. The idea was born from a work by Maurizio Rippa Bonati, Medicine historian of the University of Padua, concerning the circular shape of the theatrum that might be linked to the studies by Acquapendente, a XXVI century anatomist. The spectator should only feel, observe and imagine, not necessarily read and understand. These are spaces that invite a slow, obsequious but never relaxed pace.

Which were the challenges and limits to deal with such a wide topic? What values were involved?

Anatomical theaters aren’t really known, they are seen as part of other architectures, often read through a macabre, necrophile key. Whereas, I think they are much more interesting if seen from other perspectives, scientific in primis and then as research and experimentation places. Anatomy, the cutting of an object to understand its structure and functions, is a research method allowing us to detect all components. This ideally opposes the concept of atom, an ideally indivisible part. I believe the anatomical subject can be infinitely decomposed but it needs to be seen inside a more complete vision, as a theatre of memory and knowledge, according to Giulio Camillo’s model. The fact that these spaces opened to different kinds of initiatives (conferences, exhibitions, performances, lectures and theatre performances etc.) gives them an added value that isn’t negotiable.