Frederik Ruysch and His Thesaurus Anatomicus: A Morbid Guide
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
256 pp., illus. 85 col. Trade, $34.95
If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be “astonishing.” Ebenstein has created a treasure for the English-speaking world in conceiving of and bringing to publication this book.
She tried for a number of years to “make-it-happen” but only after liaising with Matthew Browne at The MIT Press, who champions the Leonardo charter of the reconciliation of art and science, did it eventually come to fruition.
The book is beautifully produced, graphically rich, and fully illustrated in colour, a marvellous record for posterity of Frederik Ruysch’s Thesaurus Anatomicus. It is over 250 pages in length, together with the bizarre, surreal, morbid, and astonishing reproductions of Ruysch’s prolific embalming and preserving work of once living things, not only humans, but fish, insects and botanical specimens. There is an Introduction by Joanna Ebenstein, eight informative essays with varying approaches to describing Ruysch’s life, philosophy, working methods, and controversies surrounding his long, eccentric career. This is followed by an indispensible and brilliant translation by Richard Faulk of the Thesaurus Anatomicus. It is almost like Ruysch is talking to the reader. Then follows Notes, Bibliography, and so on.
Bert Van De Roemer’s essay, The Remainders of a Reconstruction: Visualizing Ruysch’s Collection is particularly relevant to Leonardo readers as he describes the connection of art-science in detail. Van De Roemer is especially interested, “between “the artist” Ruysch, making enchanting and engaging objects, and “the scientist” Ruysch, searching for hidden knowledge about the anatomy of the human body” (p. 23). We are conditioned to believe that art has no place in scientific research and vice versa. As he writes: “[Ruysch], like other collectors from his time – felt no tension between his artistic and scientific practices and used the concepts differently and more fluidly” (p. 24). Frederik Ruysch was born in The Hague, Netherlands in 1638 and died in 1731.
Ruysch’s collection of specimens was huge, “his anatomical collection was housed in a series of massive display cabinets in three rooms of his house (p.107). He wanted to “raise the profile of medical research, and of course his role within it.” So, he opened his home with the collection to the public – Peter the Great of Russia visited Ruysch and kissed the lips of one of Ruysch’s embalmed infants! Ruysch invented embalming methods never used before. These were so good that the preserved bodies appeared as though they were merely sleeping.
Ruysch was not without his detractors. Generally it seems from those other professionals were jealous of his pioneering and brilliant methods (not much changes), his success, and his anatomical discoveries, such as the non-glandular nature of the brain and human vascular system, which was widely believed to be true in the 1600-1700s.
Then of course there was praise for this polymath genius, as Erndl wrote: “This artistry, with which this Illustrious Man has prepared this Mummy, is to be marveled, & is clearly something unheard of, surpassing all belief, unless one should see it oneself, & granted that the preparation of this cadaver might be assessed differently by his rivals, still there is no one who could produce or demonstrate anything comparable to this” (p.207).
I can understand how some people may find this book morbid, perhaps confronting, however, being an inquisitive individual, I found the book and Ruysch’s specimens, such as cadavers and preserved foetuses fascinating. It showed me things about humans and other living things I have never seen before, nor could have even imagined – collections of kidney and gall stones, deformed foetuses, skeletons, dissected tongues, and a Whale’s nipple – with Ruysch’s description beside this in the cabinet: Offers a small piece of Whale’s nipple, with its papillary nerves separated, and from which hangs a piece of corpus reticulare, perforated with innumerable apertures” (p.127).
Hence, I repeat, this is an astonishing book, which is both a wonderful artistic and scientific treat. I will finish with a short poem written for Ruysch (p. 204).
To the most widely celebrated gentleman
To preserve may give less glory than to seek:
Your art, Great man, on both accounts exceeds.
Immortal name of learning & technique,
No others’ efforts will outlast your deeds.