Artatomical: Di Sangro’s Anatomical Machines

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED June 17, 2014
The female model. (Evans/Hulton Archive/Getty) The female model. (Evans/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Behold the anatomical machines of Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero Italy (1710-1771). They were created by anatomist Giuseppe Salerno in the mid-18th century and have long fascinated, puzzled and horrified onlookers.

In fact, grisly myths have long circulated that the demented Salerno injected two of the prince’s servants with a special embalming mixture while they were still alive. Dear God, where is the 1970s Italian horror film that such a tale so richly deserves?

Male model. (De Agostini/Getty Images) Male model. (De Agostini/Getty Images)

However, as Lucia Dacome and Renata Peters point out in their paper “Fabricating the Body: The Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero,” these horror myths merely rose from the specimens’ long display at the Sansevero Chapel Museum in Naples (and before that in Prince Raimondo’s palace).

Modern minds no-doubt turn to Gunther von Hagens‘ 1977 Plastination technique and the resulting Bodies exhibit. We see blood vessels and organs seemingly preserved in a very similar manner. So was this an 18th century forerunner to the 21st century’s creepiest tourist attraction?

As authors Dacome and Peters point out, there was a lot of excitement among 17th century anatomists about the possibility of embalming bodies with injected waxes and solvents. In fact, Dutch anatomists perfected these methods by the late 17th century, so the Anatomical machines of Di Sangro certainly enter into the timeline at a reasonable point.

As it turns out, however, the anatomical machines employ more traditional anatomical wood, wax and wire modeling of the day. While the skeletons are quite real (the woman apparently died during childbirth), scanning electron microscopy analysis revels the blood vessels are composed of metal wires twisted with fibers and coated with dyed wax. The organs are made of wood.

Still, there’s no denying the beauty and horror of these anatomical curious. The remain on display, a curious mixture of life, death and immortality.


About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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