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The "Civilization of Anatomy”: the genre of Literary anatomies in Seventeenth-century Italy



Bisello E.


Maggi M.

(Project partner)

Mazzarelli C.

(Project partner)

Prandi S.

(Project partner)

External participants

Scarpa Raffaella

(Project partner)


The project aims to investigate the relationship between medical knowledge and humanistic culture in the early modern age, with special reference to the epistemological effects of Vesalius’s “De humani corporis fabrica” (1543) on the literary imagination as well as on the artworks of that period. Specifically, the research question intends to measure the spread of the anatomical method to the other disciplines and to the discursive and visual arts in the early modern period, and to this end selects as its field of investigation a set of Literary Anatomies in Italy, particularly in the 17th century. This genre is an interesting editorial phenomenon and a revealing chapter in the cultural history of this era, marked by the emergence of a “civilization of anatomy”. The investigation of Literary Anatomies is based on a concrete field of research that starts from a collection of texts unpublished since the 17th century, each selected for its genre characteristics, as each element of the corpus represents a different form of knowledge. With greater recurrence and concentration in the 17th century, the Anatomies are found in the fields of love poetry, astronomy, politics, morals, pedagogy, grammar, spirituality etc. This blossoming of publications raises questions about its meaning and implications in the history of ideas and culture. The following theoretical objectives will be pursued through the use of the corpus as a tool for studying the sources: i) To document, in concrete sources, the category of Literary Anatomies, providing a coherent repertoire of the genre: the “Biblioteca Anatomica” to be published in open access in a digital collection specifically created for this purpose. ii) A new interpretation of the texts in their deepest cultural meaning: the anatomical paradigm goes beyond the critical guidelines that until now have dealt with anatomy mainly as a variant of the Baroque taste for the macabre, where autopsy inspection becomes a form of vanitas; anatomy turns out instead to be a real “cognitive style” of the time, incorporated as an instrument in the organization of knowledge in the encyclopedic culture of the 17th century and also as a criterion for the organization of subject matter according to the parts of the body. A key aspect and related area of investigation concerns the real and concrete way the anatomical paradigm was transmitted and spread through the institutions and the crossroads of knowledge. Historically, one of the main means of spreading the heuristic method of anatomy was the humanistic Academies, as documented by correspondence between doctors, artists and scholars. The topic of the Academies is a transversal aspect that can be found in the targeted case studies proposed. They occupy different interdisciplinary fields and reinforce the research plan’s basic premise because of the wide cultural adoption of the anatomical divisive method. The following results are expected: enhancement of the importance of a collection of historical texts that were previously ignored by critics; extension of the innovative potential of this research to other fields of investigation, on the basis of an interdisciplinary approach which is being applied for the first time to this specific topic; an epistemological assessment on the “two cultures” - science and humanities - starting from specific experiences arising from the case studies; a historicizing reflection on the acceptance of the biomedical model as higher-order knowledge at the dawn of the modern age, particularly valuable in the present days, marked by the primacy of medicine on all forms of life; a continuation of the authoritative tradition of Swiss studies on the literary seventeenth century (above all Giovanni Pozzi), as the Main Applicant seeks to add her contribution to this rich cultural heritage. The project team will consist of the Main Applicant, Linda Bisello (principal investigator, team coordinator, joint supervisor of two PhD theses, and in charge of a case study); two doctoral students (each in charge of a case study); two internal project partners, Stefano Prandi and Marco Maggi (both joint-supervisors of two PhD theses, together with the Main Applicant); two external project partners, Carla Mazzarelli and Raffaella Scarpa, who enhance the interdisciplinary profile of the Project; and a prestigious Project Partner institution: The Museo Galileo – Institute and Museum of the History of Science (Florence) - which will include the “Biblioteca anatomica” among its thematic digital collections of high historical and scientific value

Additional information

Start date
End date
48 Months
Funding sources
External partners
Università di Torino Museo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza di Firenze
Swiss National Science Foundation / Project Funding / Division I - Humanities and Social Sciences