Authors: Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Seeing with our own eyes necessarily applies to the body of another. ‘NOSCE TE IPSUM’ reads the pious placard in the anatomy theatre – ‘know thyself’. But we cannot know our own self in this way because we cannot see our own interior exposed. This impossibility allows us to believe in our own immortality. We cannot see ourselves as we are, either inside (because we must be dead first) or out (because we cannot step outside our body to look). So the best we can do is to look at other bodies on the assumption that they are like our own. It’s a major step to do this. It requires us not only to accept our own mortality, but also to acknowledge the unity of humankind.
With the privileged specialist at our shoulder to guide us and point out the noteworthy landmarks, we are all able to perform autopsy. As we shall find, the medic and philosopher, artist and writer all have truths to reveal about the human body and its parts.
But first things first. To find our way around, we are going to need a map.
On holiday in Greece one time, I remember the ferryman pointing out to me a geographical feature known as Kimomeni Mountain on the mainland across the channel from the picturesque island of Poros. Kimomeni means the Sleeping Woman, and, once you are aware of it, it is impossible not to see her shape in the hills, especially in the evening, when the setting sun sharpens the outline and the retsina kicks in. Her head has clear facial features, her breasts thrust skyward, and her belly tapers away below the lowest rib of her ribcage. Her legs are pulled up so that a knee forms another summit. It’s a tourist trap, to be sure, but then again these hills have always looked like this. The Sleeping Woman predates the Acropolis. The ancient Greeks would have noticed her and pointed her out to travellers just as the modern ones do. Even Plato of Athens, thirty miles away, may have remarked upon her.
There are other sleeping women, in Thailand, Mexico and elsewhere, more or less convincing. The Scottish hills known as paps, as well as many others, are likened to human breasts. Lone rocks are named for isolated human figures in myth, such as Lot’s wife. In the mountains of California lies Homer’s Brow. Open a map of any generously contoured part of the world and sooner or later you are sure to find a feature named after some part of the human form. Such anatomico-geographical similes live on in the age of accurate mapping and aerial views: the ‘hand of Michigan’ is the mitten-shaped part of that state that juts north, dividing lakes Michigan and Huron.
When looking for an ideal of the human form, though, the Greeks looked not to the land but to the skies. They made man the replica of the universe. In Platonic metaphysics, the macrocosm, which we can translate as ‘the large world of order’, was answered by the microcosm, the small world of order that was the human body. Parts of the body were assigned to different signs of the zodiac around this time (roughly speaking, moving down the body through the astrological year, from Aries representing the head to Pisces the feet).
The idea of the human body as a microcosm is pervasive and persistent. It occurs in Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well as surviving the transition to Christian belief in the West. The rise of science after the Renaissance, when the anatomists got to work dismantling the mystery of the body, may have dealt a blow to this abstract metaphysics. But it nevertheless continued to hold an attraction for philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibniz. There are echoes of it today in ‘new age’ thinking and in Gaia theory, which likens the earth to a living organism.
It is no wonder we seek out the body in geography and cosmography. In a real sense, our individual human body is the environment, very nearly the terrain, within which we exist and act out our life. The body is both us and in a way our ecosystem. ‘I both have and am a body,’ as the sociologist Bryan Turner puts it. Or, as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus pithily told his students: ‘You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.’ It is this dual mode of existence that makes geography such a compelling metaphor for the body, and that, in turn, gives the body its own potency as a metaphor.
The idea of the body as territory will recur throughout this book. It will be particularly clear in stories of anatomists as they explore the body lying before them like an uncharted ocean, claiming new lands, and naming them after themselves. The Fallopian tubes (the human oviducts) and the Eustachian tube in the ear were claimed and named – by the Italian physicians Gabriele Falloppio and Bartolomeo Eustachi – in the same century as the Magellan Strait and Drake Passage. It also underlies the methodology of what is called topical medicine (
being the Greek for place), which proceeds by isolating problems or diseases within particular parts of the body, and it informs our simple hope that the doctor will be able to ‘put his finger on’ the trouble, like a place on a map. The display of anatomical specimens in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London has recently been reorganized ‘regionally’, according to its curator Carina Phillips, rather than by functional connectedness, reflecting a similar change of emphasis in medical education. Books of illustrated human anatomy are still sometimes called atlases, scant change really from the seventeenth century, when they were termed microcosmographias, in evocation of the diagrams of the solar system and constellations known as cosmographias. Both terms hold on to the old idea of the body as the microcosm of the universe.
Why does the geographical metaphor work so well? The body clearly has paths through it, nerves, veins and arteries. These feed certain organs or run from them. Conveying precious fluids, they are like the life-giving rivers worshipped by the Greeks. Simply tracing their routes through the body immediately puts us in mind of a map with distinctive features here and there, and in-between regions where not much happens. After Descartes’s philosophical demonstration of the separateness of body and soul, and advances in modern science such as William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, we could begin to see the body as a kind of machine. But, up until then, it had been a whole world, with parts known and parts yet to be explored, a land with a familiar shore but an uncharted interior.
The human body was also an inspiring prototype. Whole cities as well as individual buildings have been modelled on it. In the fifteenth century, the architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino, known as Filarete, designed the imaginary city of Sforzinda in honour of his patron, Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. It was the first of many ideal city plans of the Renaissance. Sforzinda’s walls described an octagonal star for defensive reasons, but within this protective skin the city was conceived for a community that would function as smoothly as the human organism. Zamo
in south-east Poland was actually built according to these Italian Renaissance principles: the centre of the city is the stomach – the Great Market; St Catherine’s church lies off to one side like the heart; the Zamoyski Palace is the head. There is even the Water Market situated in roughly the same place as the kidneys.
In the following century, the architect and famous biographer of artists Giorgio Vasari laid down his conceptual plan for the ideal palace also in terms of the human frame. The façade was the analogue of the face, the courtyard was the body, the stairways the limbs, and so on. When built, though, these structures did not easily reveal their inspiration. After all, most buildings have a façade to greet visitors and a rear where waste is disposed of without the need for highfalutin anthropomorphic theories. The bodily ideal could be explored more fully in literature. In
The Faerie Queene
by Edmund Spenser, the knights Arthur and Guyon come upon a luxurious castle laid out like a human body. The ascent to the higher storeys is made via the ribs, ‘ten steps of Alablaster [sic] wrought’. Reaching the head, the knights find that the mouth is a well-staffed gateway: ‘within the Barbican a Porter sate’ – that’s the tongue – and on either side of him ‘twise sixteen warders sat’ – the teeth. The eyes are ‘two goodly Beacons’, while three separate rooms house the various functions of the brain. The first buzzes with flies, representing men’s fantasies and imagination. The second contains the intellect and capacity for judgement, while in the last there waits ‘an old, old man . . . of infinite remembraunce’.
The poet-turned-priest John Donne, who spent much time considering the body both lustfully and spiritually, imagined it as neither palace nor castle. Instead, he looked into the basements and servant spaces, describing in one of his sermons its ‘larders and cellars, and vaults’ stuffed with ‘pottles [half-gallon containers] and gallons’ of urine, blood and other liquids, the body’s fuels and wastes.
Gustave Flaubert’s friend Maxime du Camp anatomized the city of Paris as a system of organs and their functions, while the socialist philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon dreamed of placing a vast temple in the shape of a woman at the centre of his remodelled utopian Paris. This monumental female saviour of his movement was to have carried a torch in one hand, lighting her kindly face, while the other would have supported a globe containing an entire theatre. Her robes would fall away to a great parade-ground where people could disport themselves in gentle diversions amid the scent of orange blossom. The basic idea is not new at all. As the mythographer Marina Warner notes, a Stone Age temple uncovered at Skara Brae on Orkney adopts the ‘cinquefoil form of a schematic female body, the entrance lies through the birth passage’.
Doubtless, there is a Freudian desire to return to the womb lurking in this drive to build habitation patterned after the human body. But, more importantly, at the conscious level of the intellect, the human body was taken as a model for design because it was felt to hold within it an ideal. If man was made in God’s image, then should not everything else be made in man’s?
The ideal human clearly existed in artists’ minds, but could it be described in such a way that all could know it? Could it, for example, be distilled in the new language developed by the Greeks – mathematics? Plato believed that sight was the noblest of the five senses. His notion of human beauty was therefore a visual one and has set the terms for the philosophical discussion of beauty ever since. Indeed, it continues to govern our prejudices today, as we see when a television presenter is suddenly sacked for no greater sin than simply growing old at the same rate as the rest of us. Fair or not, though, the measure of beauty we are looking for must also be visual.
In the latter half of the fifth century
, the Greek sculptor of athletes, Polykleitos, set out a prescription for human beauty in a text that he called the
, and used these proportions to create an exemplary bronze nude of a young man carrying a spear, the
. The original sculpture does not survive, but a few fragments and Roman copies in marble have been enough for faithful casts to be made, which are widely scattered in the world’s museums. The artist concentrated on the torso, giving it magnificent pectorals and obliques – the muscles just above the hips. The second of these features appears especially overdeveloped to modern eyes, but it helped to define the ideal in Classical sculpture, becoming known as the girdle of Achilles or the Greek fold. This spear carrier is perhaps the most copied statue in antiquity. His chest was even taken as a model for the body-fitting bronze armour of generations of later Greek and Roman soldiers. This ‘muscled cuirass’ (or
in French) replicated not only warrior-like features such as the pectorals and the ribs, but also the navel and even the nipples. This ideal survives in comic-book heroes such as Superman and Batman, whose tight tunics reveal every muscle – but generally omit these homoerotic extras.
Like the original
, the text of the
is lost, and with it presumably the numbers that would reveal to us Polykleitos’s system of ideal proportions. Surprisingly, perhaps, it has proven impossible to deduce them from the sculpture itself. The human body has simply too many dimensions, and too many points where one might put one’s measuring tape, to begin to guess.
The system of human proportion laid down some 400 years after Polykleitos by the Roman architect Vitruvius has fared better. It is found in the only surviving work on architecture from the Classical period,
. Vitruvius’s ten volumes were the standard text for architects until the Renaissance, when men such as Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Palladio brought out their own multi-volume guides. Vitruvius’s ideal template for the human body comes in the third volume of the set, which covers his principles for the design of temples:
no building can be said to be well designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure, which nature has so fashioned, that in the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead, or to the roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the height of the whole body. From the chin to the crown of the head is an eighth part of the whole height, and from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head the same. From the upper part of the breast to the roots of the hair a sixth; to the crown of the head a fourth. A third part of the height of the face is equal to that from the chin to under side of the nostrils, and thence to the middle of the eyebrows the same; from the last to the roots of the hair, where the forehead ends, the remaining third part. The length of the foot is a sixth part of the height of the body. The fore-arm a fourth part. The width of the breast a fourth part. Similarly have other members their due proportions, by attention to which the ancient Painters and Sculptors obtained so much reputation.