Role of anatomy in our contemporary age and the history of the Anatomy Museum of Naples


  • Vincenzo Esposito,

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    • Human Anatomy Unit, Department of Public, Clinical, and Preventive Medicine, Seconda Università di Napoli, Via Luciano Armanni 5, 80138 Napoli, Italy
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    • Dr. Esposito is full professor of human anatomy, head of Anatomy Unit Department of Public and Preventive Medicine, head of Anatomical Museum, president of Committee for University Sport, in Second University of Naples, Italy. He has realized many studies on the anatomical collection of the museum, where he has initiated transdisciplinary researches together his pupil, Ms. Chiapparo, who is interested in child psychiatric/somatic disease, which she studies through an integrated scientific/philosophical methodology.

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  • Simona Chiapparo

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    • Dr. Esposito is full professor of human anatomy, head of Anatomy Unit Department of Public and Preventive Medicine, head of Anatomical Museum, president of Committee for University Sport, in Second University of Naples, Italy. He has realized many studies on the anatomical collection of the museum, where he has initiated transdisciplinary researches together his pupil, Ms. Chiapparo, who is interested in child psychiatric/somatic disease, which she studies through an integrated scientific/philosophical methodology.


This work analyzes the significance of anatomical knowledge in the contemporary age through the history of a prestigious institution, the Anatomy Museum of Naples. The museum's past was ineluctably linked not only to the local sociopolitical events but also to the scientific developments of medicine. The museum is an academic place where the importance of the anatomic science in the contemporary age both in the scientific and in the cultural fora is evident. Anat Rec (Part B: New Anat) 289B:92–97, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Within the contemporary debate on scientific and cultural research, the centrality of the human body is more and more manifest thanks to the so-called biopolitical paradigm by Michel Foucault. According to him, the vicissitudes of the body—its description, the studies on it, its medical assistance and management—contain a political dimension, hence they cannot be dealt with only from a medical perspective. In fact, medical science, as well as all science in general, has in this regard failed because of its reiterated objective methodology that, in regard to the vicissitudes of the body, has nowadays become alien. The biopolitical paradigm has unveiled the urgency of a philosophical practice that again accompanies medicine in order to gather the multifaceted meaning of the experience of the body (Foucault,1969). While this need was well satisfied in the classical epoch when the philosopher-medical doctor was common, it is nowadays opposed by some scientist such as the neurophysiologist Anthony Damasio (2003). Indeed, this new awareness of the complexity of the vicissitudes of the body reaffirms the crucial significance of such a prestigious institution as the Museo Anatomico di Napoli (the Anatomy Museum of Naples). Due to its intricate history, this institution appears to configure itself well as an academic place fit to receive the actual centrality of the vicissitudes of the human body and able to explicate its multifaceted meanings.

The current scientific methodologies based on criteria of objectiveness that have gradually increased the tendency of procedures and methods to become abstract urge the reestablishment of the fundamental role of the human body. Indeed, an abstract and objective science differentiates itself more and more from the vicissitudes of the human body. The crisis of Western scientific culture as clearly stated by Edmund Husserl (1972) at the beginning of the 20th century inevitably leads to epistemological actions aimed at filling the gap between Western culture and day-by-day life that materializes in single and subjective bodies.

Nevertheless, a renewed approach to the human body is required to avoid cognitive attitudes that consider the body as the sum of parts without any interconnecting structures and dynamics (Solano,2001). This idea of the body has had many consequences on the psychic life of communities as well as on their cognitive activities (Merricks,2001).

According to such a theory, the body appears as divided in portions without any reciprocal relation and, thereafter, alienated by more and more insisting on anatomophysiologic close-ups. Based on this approach, in 1986 the United States National Library of Medicine launched the Visible Human Project (VHP), aimed at creating “complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female bodies” (

While undoubtedly characterized by scientific aims similar to those that urged anatomists to establish the first cabinets to prepare and preserve anatomical specimens, the VHP highlights the current attitude of human anatomy to propose itself as a set of “data … that could be reassembled, navigated and manipulated with computer software” ( Therefore, due to self-generated attitudes based on criteria of eliminativism, the axiom that affirms the urge of dividing up the macrophysical objects into their elemental parts (Merricks,2001), the present pervasion of the human body transforms the excessive presence of the body into its absence, or obsolescence. This obsolescence recalls the pseudoscientific anxiety toward evolution of body morphology that intrinsically coincides with insane attempts to overcome technically the death which, due to its disintegrating effect on bodies, set up the tradition of early studies about human anatomy and, nowadays, is significantly deprived, in our opinion, of any significance by scientific projects and computer-based paradigms, such as VHP, that clearly refer to the telepresence of the body. The concept of the telepresence, introduced by Marvin Minsky (Kac,1993), expresses the contemporary need for virtual dimension of human bodily existence. It is akin to the similar concept of tele-existence, which “refers to the situation where the main senses of an operator, like sight and hearing, are transferred to a remote place by means of telecommunications so that he/she has the 'feelings of presence'” (Suomela and Halme,2001). So this vision of the body has alarming consequences on collective imagination, as the posthuman artistic faction has testified and indeed fed at an increasing pace (Kac,1993; Grau,2000).

Furthermore, amplifying the concept of obsolescence, this cognitive approach to the body justifies many medical practices based on a “multitransplanted” body “supported by new drugs and supplied with numerous prosthesis.” These biomedical practices aim at bridging the borders between the organic and the inorganic, the biological and the technological, in order to escape the natural destiny of diseases, individual deficits, and malformations.

While keeping off conservative ideologies, which oppose scientific and technological progress, we recognize the urgency of restating the centrality of the body in all aspects—not only scientific ones—of the human cognitive praxis.

Taking into account the aforementioned considerations, the Anatomy Museum of Naples plays a very crucial role thanks not only to its past—shaped more by complex human vicissitudes than by cultural and scientific facts—but also to its recent history, equally evocative and valuable, as we analyze in the following pages.


The intricate beginning of the Anatomy Museum of Naples appears significantly linked to the city's institutional and sociopolitical events, while being clearly influenced by the concurrent development of the medical science.

The oldest nucleus of the current anatomical collection derives from the dissection cabinet (a place in which the anatomists made their scientific experiments) that, in the 17th century, the anatomist and famous surgeon Marco Aurelio Severino established at the Ospedale di San Giacomo Apostolo.

A second nucleus was established by Domenico Cotugno, a follower of Morgagni and a supporter of anatomical dissections' relevance, at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, where many medical cabinets of Naples's hospitals were moved.

At the end of the 18th century, the future Anatomy Museum of Naples's history was linked with that of two more Neapolitan institutions, the Mineralogy Cabinet and the Zoology Cabinet. Indeed, it was strongly influenced by the perpetual clash between science and political power (Spadaccini,1991).

While Italy was under French domination (1806–1815), on Giuseppe Bonaparte's specific directive, the Minister of Interior, Mr. Miot, started restructuring the kingdom's public school and university as well as museums and libraries (Borrelli,2000).

By the royal decree issued on 30 May 1806 and by the following one in 1808, among other things, the French government expressed its intention to create the Museum of Natural History on the model of the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

By Minister Capelacetro's decree in 1811, the number of chairs of medicine was increased to nine while the pathologic anatomy chair was for the first time joined with the anatomy chair. However, due to the short French ruling period, the plan was realized only partially, with the establishment of the Zoology Cabinet in 1813 on the first floor of the Collegio del Salvatore (Monticelli,1901; Mezzogiorno,2000).

The institutional care of public education continued under the government of King Ferdinando IV, who had recovered the Naples crown in 1816. By his royal decree, the whole collection of anatomical preparations belonging to the University and to the Ospedale di San Giacomo Apostolo (which was to be demolished in order to build the new Palazzo delle Finanze) was transferred to the contiguous rooms of the Zoology Cabinet where the Human and Pathologic Anatomy Cabinet of the university was then established. First Francesco Folinea (1816–1833), then Antonio Nanula (1833–1844), directed this cabinet. With passion, Nanula devoted himself to the development of the University's Anatomy Cabinet, in favor of which he devolved his rich personal collection, which included both human anatomy specimens (271 pieces) and comparative anatomy preparations such as skeletons, organs of various animals, and stones (calculi) derived from urinary bladders of dogs, foxes, horses, and pigs (Panceri,1868).

During the decade 1830–1840, the collections increased significantly thanks not only to the donation of dried and in-spirit specimens prepared by Nanula (1834), but also because of wonderful new wax models ordered by the anatomist from the sculptor Francesco Saverio Citarelli (Fig. 1), a pupil of the ceroplastics artist Clemente Susini, of the famous Cabinet of the Museo della Specola di Firenze.

Figure 1.

Fetus within uterus: (A) breech birth and (B) cephalic birth. Wax models by Francesco Saverio Citarelli.

In 1844, Nanula urged the academic authorities to decree the enlargement of the anatomical room, by that time inadequate to contain all the specimens. The new rooms were inaugurated during the Seventh Congress of Italian Scientists in Naples on 20 September 1845.

In 1846, Stefano delle Chiaie (Spadaccini,1991) succeeded Nanula (1846–1860) and continued the enlargement of the collections, adding more comparative anatomy and teratology specimens, a set of wax models (some of which belonging to the first anatomical collection, at the Ospedale di San Giacomo Apostolo), as well as anatomical specimens from the Surgical Clinic Cabinet.

When Italy was unified, the activities of Naples University were strongly influenced by the changing political circumstances that, for instance, produced institutional proceedings, such as the 27 October 1860 decree, by which no less than eight professors were discharged.

The director of the anatomy chair and its respective cabinet was named Gennaro Barbarisi, who added crania, from the excavations in Pompeii, Erculaneum, and Cumae and the Teste della Vicaria (Vicaria's heads; Fig. 2), to the Anatomy Cabinet (Miraglia,1876). The latter are crania of executed men that were left hanging for almost 30 years in iron cages on the walls of the Neapolitan district known as Vicaria. Moreover, Barbarisi acquired numerous wax models of embryology and human organogenesis by the naturalist and French modeler Guy Ainè.

Figure 2.

Vicaria's crania, phrenological preparations. Cranium of Giuditta Guastamacchia.

The Imbriani law in 1861, while separating the general and pathologic anatomy chair in three new chairs, stated the redistribution of anatomical collection in three sections, one for each new chair: normal human anatomy, pathologic anatomy, and comparative anatomy (Russo,1997).

In 1871, Giovanni Antonelli (1870–1914), who succeeded Barbarisi, ordered the move of the Anatomy Cabinet from the Collegio del Salvatore to the former Monastero di Santa Patrizia. This building, purchased along with the former monastery of Sant'Andrea delle Dame by the Faculty of Medicine on dissolution of the respective religious orders, became the site of the renewed Anatomy Institute that definitively included the Anatomy Cabinet. A whole wing of new institute was set to receive the rich anatomical collection in order to allow a more coherent and adequate exhibition, thanks to the availability of wider rooms and of elegant wooden thecae.

The Anatomy Cabinet officially became the Human Anatomy Museum of Naples that since then sits in the former Monastero di Santa Patrizia. In its current architectonic structure, this building shows traces of its complex construction from the Greek colonization up to the foundation of the Benedectine nunnery (first consecrated to Saint Nicandro and Saint Marciano, then to Saint Patrizia), until the remaking of the convent supervised by architect Della Monica in the 12th century (Celano,1858; Pane,1939; Pane et al.,1963).

During the following years, the directors of the Anatomy Museum continued increasing the collections. New didactic wax models (Fig. 3) were acquired from Ziegler's Studium (Hopwood,2002) and preparations in petrifaction by Efisio Marini (1881) were added as well. Eventually, Nicola Donadio (1939–1940) devolved his collection of self-prepared vascular system's casts by corrosion (Fig. 4) to the museum.

Figure 3.

Hepatic vascular system prepared through corrosion by Nicola Donadio.

Figure 4.

Organogenesis of the heart. Two wax models of the wide collection by Friederich Ziegler.

During the Second World War, the museum was shut down mainly because of severe lack of governmental funding. In September 1980, the activities of the museum were definitively stopped due to a disastrous earthquake that hit Naples. The whole anatomical collection was removed from the museum, severely damaged by the seismic event. The restructuring lasted nearly 10 years and the Anatomy Museum (Fig. 5) was reopened only in 1997 (Mezzogiorno et al.,1997).

Figure 5.

The Anatomy Museum of Naples.


The more recent history of this institution is mainly characterized by deep interest in subjects often deemed marginal within the present scientific debate, e.g., the role of women in the development of medicine. It is also marked by the beginning of studies on the history of medicine with multidisciplinary approach (Voltaggio,1992). For example, studies on the ritual of dissection (Carlino,1994) that require integration of historiographical aspects with more specifically philosophical, ethnographical, and anthropological ones (Pouchelle,1983). This approach to research is crucial not only for the complexity of the subjects, but also to enhance awareness of the vital importance of transdisciplinary connections. This approach is important in all human cognitive activities, either cultural or scientific. In this regard, it is worth highlighting the works of Edgar Morin, who has for many years analyzed the crisis of representation in modern sciences. According to many authors (Elkana,1989; Ceruti and Preta,1990; Varela et al.,1992), this crisis requires a critical approach to the traditional categories of analysis of the aforementioned sciences. Identifying the need of a drastic reform of thinking, Morin (1993) hopes for a fundamental change in human logic-cognitive modalities through the realization of a complex thinking no longer restrictive, disjunctive, and one-dimensional—leaving much scope to critics toward initiatives such as the Visible Human Project—but, in the perspective of the complexity, involving in a dialogue many heterogeneous factors of the scientific practice as well as of all the human cognitive and communicative processes.

All this will be firmly taken in hand in all the future projects of the museum. In fact, the Anatomy Museum of Naples is characterized by a broad-minded approach to some areas of the present artistic scenery, a natural outcome of the human anatomy's tradition, e.g., the cooperation between the anatomists and the artists during the 15th and 16th centuries (Voltaggio,1992; Kemp and Wallace,2001) and, specifically, with famous experts in ceroplastics at the Anatomy Museum of Naples.

Significant synergy between anatomy and art is realized by European institutions such as the Anatomy Museum of Madrid (whose teratology collection was studied by the photographer Rosamund Wolff Purcell in accordance with its director, Professor Fermin Viejo Tirado) and the Anatomy Museum of Montpellier, where the famous artist Jan Fabre carried out an interesting audiovisual study on the body. Therefore, by inaugurating a renewed tradition of transdisciplinary dialogue, the Anatomy Museum of Naples expresses the firm beliefs that the old-fashioned dichotomy between art and science must be overcome (Wilson,2002). The urgent need to overcome the gap among arts, philosophy, and science was already stated by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, Ilya Prigogine, according to whom a renewed alliance among arts, philosophy, and science needs to be reestablished—as the Anatomy Museum of Naples seeks—to stem the aforementioned crisis of sciences. In this case, it will be feasible to restore “the solidarity of our interior experience with the world we live in,” hence allowing all the sciences, included the medical one, to cure “the scar left when breaking with the philosophy” (Prigogine,2003). With this perspective, the medicine may have again a complex dimension, redefining itself as “art of healing,” more precisely “human art and science,” this being one of the main projects of the Anatomy Museum of Naples. In this regard, the director of the Institut für Medizin und Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Lubecca, Dietrich Von Engelhardt (1995), said that “medicine, arts and philosophy have multiple links. The cultural or artistic dimension of the medicine is manifest not only in the reproduction of medical phenomena in arts and literature, but mainly in the contribution of arts such as literature and philosophy to diagnostic and therapy and to the overcoming of pain, illness and death.” This would allow restating the unavoidability of a new search for sense, which the scientific as well as the philosophic/artistic contemporary cultures should regain possession. Only this new search will allow reassembling the unity of the body not only in the scientific and medical environment but also in the collective imagination. This unity is critical to prevent the spreading of psychiatric illnesses caused by splitting the body more and more represented, and experienced, as made up of parts without not only any mental/emotional but also ethical and sociopolitical significance.

It has now become clearer the innovative role of a historical institution as the Anatomy Museum of Naples. Sharing the “live metaphor” represented by the unavoidable links between arts, science, and philosophy, the activities of the Anatomy Museum of Naples may be the basis to new scientific and ethical/cultural revolutions that, as “metaphoric redescriptions” of the nature (Hesse,1980), reaffirm the fundamental role of the body in its unavoidable unity.


The authors thank all the past directors of the Anatomy Museum of Naples who significantly involved themselves in the preservation of this historical institution. They also thank Brigadier General Aniello Angelotti and Lieutenant Colonel Maurizio De Giorgi from the Allied Joint Force Command Naples for their editorial support.