The Bizarre Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero

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History and images of the Anatomical Machines

The anatomical machines are two anatomical models that reproduce the human circulatory system and are on display in Naples’ Cappella Sansevero. They were built on a male and female human skeleton in the second part of the 18th century. The vessel system’s recreation is made of metal wire, wax, and silk, yet it was long thought to be of natural origin due to its richness of detail.

Related article: The Gorini Anatomical Museum

Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero
Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero
campania

Raimondo di Sangro, the Prince of Sansevero was known more for his “prodigious” inventions arousing wonder and amazement in the Neapolitan people, such as the Carrozza Marittima, a carriage with wood and cork “horses” which, driven by a cunning system of paddlewheels, could travel on both land and water; the Lume Perpetuo, an “eternal flame”, using chemical compounds of his invention; a hydraulic device that could pump water to any height and a printing press which could print different colors in a single impression.

Many rumors arose surrounding his alchemical activities: that he could generate blood from nothing, that he could duplicate San Gennaro’s blood liquefaction, and that he had people slaughtered so he could utilize their bones and skin in experiments.

carrozza-marittima
La Carrozza Marittima,

The Sansevero Chapel was supposed to be built on the site of an ancient Isis temple, and di Sangro was a Rosicrucian. Locals cited a massive statue of the God of the Nile, which stood just around the corner from his home, as evidence. Di Sangro’s family house in Naples, the Palazzo Sansevero, was the site of a terrible murder in the late 16th century when composer Carlo Gesualdo caught his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto and killed them in their bed.

The Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero
The Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero

Around 1763, Raimondo de Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, commissioned the anatomical machines which were built by Giuseppe Salerno, an anatomist from Palermo.

The Breve Nota (brief note), an 18th-century guide to Palazzo di Sangro and its neighboring chapel, was the first to describe them in depth.
It also explains the existence of a third machine, a fetus complete with placenta, which was exposed alongside the other two devices until it was stolen in the 1990s. The figures were initially shown in the “phoenix’s room” in Palazzo di Sangro, where they were viewed by Marquis de Sade in 1775, and were only transported to the chapel after the prince’s death.

Anatomical Machines of the Prince of Sansevero
Image by get directly down via Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons license

According to a legend, the two models are the product of a macabre alchemical experiment by Sansevero who used two servants for his experiments by injecting into their bodies a substance of his invention, probably based on mercury, which would have transformed the blood into metal and thus safeguarded the blood circuit.

In 2008 a group of researchers from University College London was authorized to analyze the models in the chapel. The skeletons are authentic, while the circulatory system is made up of metal cables, colored waxes, and silk, using techniques familiar to contemporary scholars. According to their findings, the models contain some mistakes in the reproduction of the circulatory system.

The-Anatomical-Machines-of-the-Prince-of-Sansevero-004
Head of the male model, Author: David Sivyer, Wikimedia

A fetus with placenta and umbilical cord which, according to di Sangro, died together with her mother during birth, was placed at the women’s feet, however, it was stolen in the 1990s.

Before he died, Di Sangro destroyed his own scientific archive. Due to di Sangro’s association with Freemasonry and alchemy, his relatives destroyed what was remained of his papers, formulae, laboratory equipment, and results of experiments after his death, fearing ex-communication by the Church.

Source: Museo Sansevero

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