October 12, 2003


Albertus Seba’s collection was not the only one that Peter the Great acquired in his 1717-18 visit to Amsterdam (see my previous entry). He also purchased Frederik Ruysch’s cabinet of anatomical curios. Between them, these collections formed the basis of the Russian Academy of Science’s cabinet - indeed Ruysch’s collection is still held complete by the Academy, in St Petersburg.

First of three details from an engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.
Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) was a Dutch anatomist and a pioneer in techniques of preserving organs and tissue. In addition to his scientific contributions, he made artistic arrangements of his material. He had his own museum of curiosities, and among the displays were a number of dioramas assembled from body parts and starring melodramatic fetal skeletons. A few of these were captured in meticulous detail ‘drawn from life’ by the engraver Cornelius Huyberts. These engravings were inserted as foldouts in various early 18th century editions of Ruysch’s works - from a Zymoglyphic Museum page about Ruysch.
Second of three details from an engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.
Ruysch […] was the first great exponent of the anatomical specimen. Visitors from all over Europe came to marvel at his ‘repository of curiosities.’ As Amsterdam’s chief instructor of midwives and ‘legal doctor’ to the court, Ruysch had ample access to the bodies of stillborns and dead infants and used them to create extraordinary multi-specimen scenes. In making such displays, he claimed an extraordinary privilege: the right to collect and exhibit human material without the consent of the anatomized - from the Dream Anatomy exhibit pages at the National Library of Medicine.
Last of three details from an engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.

Some time before I learned of Ruysch’s morbid dioramas, I was acquainted with his name from its appearance in the title of Giacomo Leopardi’s haunting Dialogue Between Frederik Ruysch and his Mummies, written in 1824. Its scenario has Ruysch awakened one night by a group of his dead specimens singing a lugubrious chorus, after which he learns that some freakish conjunction of the stars has, albeit for the briefest of interludes, granted the dead the power of speech…

First of three details from another engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.

RUYSCH. …but since time is short and leaves no choice, let me know in brief what kind of sensations of body and mind you experienced at the point of death.
MUMMY. I didn’t notice the actual point of death.
THE OTHER MUMMIES. We didn’t either.
RUYSCH. How come you didn’t notice it?
MUMMY. Just as you never notice the moment you begin to sleep, no matter how much attention you pay.
RUYSCH. But to fall asleep is natural.
MUMMY. And you don’t think dying is natural? Show me a man, or an animal, or a plant that doesn’t die.
RUYSCH. I’m no longer surprised that you go on singing and talking if you didn’t notice when you died. ‘Unwitting of the blow, he went ahead/Combatting still, and yet already dead,’ writes an Italian poet. I thought that on this question of death, those like you would know something more than the living. But going back to our subject, at the point of death didn’t you feel any pain?
MUMMY. What kind of pain can it be if one who feels it doesn’t notice it?
RUYSCH. At any rate, all are convinced that the sensation of death is extremely painful.
MUMMY. As if death were a sensation, and not the opposite…

Second of three details from another engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.

RUYSCH. Then what is death if it’s not pain?
MUMMY. Pleasure rather than anything else. You should know that dying, like falling asleep, does not take place in an instant, but by degrees. True, these degrees are more or less greater or smaller according to the variety of the causes and to the kinds of death. In the last moment, death brings neither pain nor pleasure, no more than does sleep. In the preceding moments it cannot produce pain becaise pain is something alive, and, at that time, that is, after the beginning of death, man’s senses are moribund, which is like saying weakened in the extreme. It may well be a cause of pleasure, for pleasure is not always something alive; in fact, most human pleasures consist in some sort of langour, so that man’s senses are capable of pleasure even when they are near extinction since very often langour itself is pleasure, especially when it frees you from suffering; for, as you well know, the cessation of pain or discomfort is in itself pleasure. So, the langour of death ought to be the more welcome as it frees man from greater suffering…

Last of three details from another engraving by Huyberts of a Ruysch diorama.

The images above are details excerpted from two of the engravings of Ruysch’s handiwork presented at the Dream Anatomy exhibit (see above for a link). The Leopardi I took from the 1982 edition of his Operette Morali - Essays and Dialogues as translated by Giovanni Cecchetti.

Posted by misteraitch at October 12, 2003 12:07 PM | TrackBack