My Body Archives Class

Contrary to popular belief, I actually do take real classes here. I’ll write a post for each of them just to prove it. This post is dedicated to my Body Archives class, which I signed up to take out of pure curiosity and intrigue. It has not disappointed! It’s kind of hard to explain what it’s about, so here is a link to the school’s website where you can read about it:

http://www.saci-florence.edu/mobile/course.php?id=93

Basically, it deals with perceptions of the body, dealing with ourselves, the “Other,” etc. It consists of lectures, field trips, and occasional studio time to work on our pieces. It is extremely interesting, especially since I love to study human anatomy (I was an SI for the lab last semester). It is helping to prepare me for the field of occupational therapy (and related fields) by giving me contact with psychiatric patients, incredible anatomical collections, learning how those who are different or rejected by society are perceived/perceive themselves, and so many more ways. We first visited La Specola, a museum in Florence under the umbrella of the Natural History Museum. This place houses an enormous collection of wax anatomical figures, taxidermy, jarred specimens, and just about anything else cool or creepy from the 16- or 1700s. Many of the items belonged to the Medici family! (That means most of this stuff is older than America! As is most anything in Europe.) Here are a few pictures from La Specola:

   

That’s real human hair on this wax figure.

    
These figures are unique in so many ways. It is interesting to see how art and science overlap here. While it is a very accurate representation of female anatomy, the artisans who made them were extremely skillful. The way they are positioned on beautiful silk, with pearl necklaces, braided hair, and in the erotic positions they are in show how, even in the scientific community, women were sexualized. 

Such intricate detail! So much work was put into these pieces, it blows my mind.

 
This piece is interesting because of the position this man is in. It makes you think of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching out to God, but instead he is pointing to himself, showing the humanistic side of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Also, his arms are positioned that way so you can see both sides. All of these figures serve both a scientific and an artistic purpose.

   
These figures are based on real dissections done on people who would be considered “Others:” executed prisoners, psychiatric patients, etc.

This hippo supposedly belonged to the Medicis and was kept in the Boboli Gardens, fed like a dog. It was not uncommon for the wealthy to own exotic animals and large, interesting collections as a show of power. These Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity, were in many ways the first museums. They consisted of a wide range of relics and pieces, both scientific and superstitious.

  

The poor guy who did this taxidermy had probably never even seen a hippo before. Look how wrong the feet are! Hippo feet don’t bend that way.

  
 
We went back a second time a week or two later, and we saw the skeleton room and the observatory.  

This was an elephant that traveled around Europe. It was THE elephant that Europeans saw, appearing in many paintings, including Raphael’s.

  

It was really cool to see scientists in their lab coats working as we were in the room. Pictured are some of my classmates. There are only five people in the class, including me.

  
 
 

This is the view from the observatory. You can see the Duomo!

We also got to go in a special room in La Specola that visitors don’t normally see, full of glass jars and other containers with animals submerged in alcohol. It was super creepy, especially the snakes. 

The guy in white was our guide.

Super creepy and photogenic snakes.

We almost stepped on this little gecko that snuck in the room. He must have been very lost.

There was also this cool secret door that we got to go into. Closed, it just looks like the surrounding bookshelves, just like something on Scooby-Doo.

Super creepy chamelions.

I was just walking along, viewing the specimens, when i came across this large turtle in a bag.

Super creepy and photogenic large lizard.

We saw this quote by Dante as we exited the room. Roughly translated, it reads: “Consider your seed. They were not born to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge.”

We then went into this room that had rows and rows of file cabinets full of any bug you can imagine.


  
A week or two later, we went to this hospital that housed two collections: one of normal anatomy, and the other of pathological anatomy. We had the same guide as above. All of these photos are from the normal anatomy collection. Some of the specimens had their skin and muscles flayed out, in a disturbing way that made them look like monsters. It was so you could see what the insides looked like, but again, there’s the theatrical element where science and art cross paths. I didn’t include pictures of those things. You’re welcome.

 

Cabinets full of human skulls, from infants to the elderly.

  

These skulls are from VERY old people.

  

Infant skeletons, all the way back to very early in pregnancy.

  

I thought these hearts were displayed in a very interesting way.

  

That aorta though

  

Nerves on black panel, a very typical method of display in the 1800s.

   

A piece of pelvis colored blue.

    

So there was this giy who figured out how to petrify flesh, but he died before he shared his secret. No one knows his formula even today. These are a few things he petrified. No one knows his formula because he destroyed all of his notes and stuff after he had an embarrassing episode. He made this beautiful table that had cut pieces of stone put together in a pattern, and he gave it to a nobleman. The nobleman noticed, however, that it was not stone, but petrified human flesh. He reasonably got very freaked out and refused to accept the gift, which greatly offended the scientist.

    
 I didn’t take any pictures in the pathological collection. There was some gruesome stuff in there. There were wax figures with the real body beside them, babies with anencephaly in jars of alcohol, Siamese twins, and anything you might see in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. 

We had an assignment allied Fantastic Me, where we could make anything that had to do with perceptions of the body, anatomy, anything, as well as an element of fantasy. I decided to do an embroidery piece. Here’s the process:

  

  
  

My classmates were really interested in what the back looked like.
  

And the finished product of hours of labor! Here’s my artist’s statement:
   

 This piece is a unique look inside the “normal” human body (the chest). It allows the uneasiness many people have about internal organs or anatomy to fade, giving them something approachable and beautiful to look at, rather than something off-putting or grotesque. It strives to be as anatomically correct as the medium will allow, while using different stitches to show different tissues. The butterflies explore the concept that traditional embroidery is typically considered kitsch, while the overall subject is quite unconventional. It is as if the “butterflies in one’s stomach” that everyone experiences are escaping. 

Last week, we visited the Museum of Anthropology to have a look at the “Other.” There were all sorts of tribal pieces from all over the world.  

    
    
    
  

This is Captain James Cook. He sailed all around the world, and he collected many of the things in the museum.

  
    
   
Unfortunately, many of the items were gained after war, unfair trading, or other in humane ways. 

Tuesday, we had a visit from a group of psychiatric patients with whom some MFA students have been working. The classroom was packed, although you can’t tell it in the photo. They showed pictures they took with homemade cameras, and we got to show them our projects. We will probably have several more encounters with this beautiful group of people. 

Take a look at our class’s Facebook page to see more pictures from this semester and years past! Just search on Facebook “Body Archives” and it should come up.

 

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