Yesterday, I received an invitation to visit Buckingham Palace.
I replied straight away. Wouldn’t you? So, next Wednesday, I’ll be going for an ‘exclusive blogger’s breakfast’ at the Queen’s Gallery for a tour of Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. Excited? Yes. (By the way, I don’t think the Queen will be there. But it makes a good title.)
I feel a great affinity for da Vinci’s notebooks, having seen an exhibition of them somewhere (it was probably DC or Boston) when I was about sixteen. I was captivated by the figure drawings, the mirrored handwriting, and the alchemical feel of such old brilliance (remember, I was sixteen). I haven’t thought of those sheaves of paper for a long time, but it came back to me with an overwhelming punch with the arrival of this invitation. I think da Vinci was the start of my love affair with the history of medicine; with the history of science, anatomy, and invention (I remember his drawings of flying machines especially).
The timing couldn’t be better: today, I fly to Vienna, and tomorrow I plan to visit the Josephinum, where a full collection of wax anatomical models instructed by Felice Fontana, made by Clemente Susini and the wax-workshop at La Specola, Florence, are housed. It will be fascinating to compare and contrast the Viennese waxes to the Florentine waxes.
On the facing page of my AA guidebook, the ‘Narrenturm,’ a former insane asylum, is described, and I must see that, too: ‘You may find it bizarre or gruesome, but you won’t forget a visit to this 18th entry, circular Fool’s Tower, now home to a museum. Be prepared for its ghoulish medical chamber of horrors.’ Now, I rather hate that quote, as it is sensationalist and misplaces (as so many sites do) the medical history’s context – Entschuld, but these ‘horrors’ were meant to save people’s lives; were the forefront of medical trailblazing. Fair enough that it was often said that the cure was worse than the disease (for example, in the case of removing all of the breast tissue pre-anesthesia if a woman had breast cancer – see Fanny Burney) – but I think for the most part, the intention was to heal. (Of course in the part of the insane or marginalised, the intention was probably more to experiment and learn from rather than heal…I need to come back to this or I’ll just keep saying ‘however’.)
Atlas Obscura describes the Narrenturm as full of: ‘Syphilitic skulls that resemble Swiss cheese, jars of disfigured fetuses, and graphic wax displays of untreated STDs all peer out at you from the old cells. It also contains a recreated wonder cabinet, complete with a narwhal tusk and taxidermied monkeys.’
I admit that I too fall fictional prey to the ‘evil doctor / mad genius’ trope, which I use in my poetry play Venus Heart. However, if real medical history wasn’t presented as so gruesome, maybe people wouldn’t think it was so gruesome (she writes skeptically). Then again, it might not appeal so hugely to the Goth/Steampunk market. Well, I’ll just have to go to the Narrenturm and see how it’s all presented.
And then when I’m back from Vienna, I’m off to Buckingham Palace. Did I mention that?