De anatomische lessen van Frederik Ruysch
The anatomy lessons of Frederik Ruysch
Seventeenth-century anatomist Frederik Ruysch was world famous until well into the nineteenth century. His collection of carefully prepared, artistically displayed body parts in formaldehyde was one of Amsterdam’s top tourist attractions. On a visit in 1697 Peter the Great was so impressed by the true-to-life nature of the embalmed child corpses that he embraced and kissed them. Twenty years later he was able to take the entire collection to Russia, where it is preserved to this day in the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, in hundreds of jars and bottles.
Ruysch was renowned for his skill at preserving bodies so perfectly that they seemed alive. He injected their arteries and organs with a special fluid, the ingredients of which he kept a closely guarded secret. Visitors were amazed to discover that the cadavers and body parts in his collection had achieved a form of immortality. Luuc Kooijmans, his biographer, describes Ruysch as an ‘artist of death’.
Ruysch adorned body parts with collars, cuffs and frills to hide scars and other unsightly blemishes. He decked out a foetus in a cap and collar; he laid an embryo in the jaws of an African snake; in the amputated hand of a child he put a tortoise egg with a hatchling emerging. He filled five rooms of his house with his ‘living cadavers’, anatomical anomalies, all manner of animal specimens (1,500 jars in total), slippers made from human skin, even a breastplate bearing the brand of the thief from whose skin it was made. During his lifetime the artistic aspects of Ruysch’s work sometimes brought criticism and scorn from scientists, but after he died it was as an artist of death that he continued to inspire people, from Balzac to Stephen Jay Gould.
The process of preparing his specimens helped Ruysch understand the secrets of the human body. Discoveries made through minute observation reached a broad audience by means of his anatomical collection, his public anatomy lessons, and his innumerable published works. These were troubled times in which the wisdom of centuries was called into question and new heroes emerged. With an eye for arresting details, Kooijmans describes how scholars like Ruysch dealt with a period of profound change.