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Women, science and Pope Benedict XIV

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2012 - When Rebecca Messbarger, the daughter of Irish-Catholic parents, announced to her family at the age of 19 that she was going to "become Italian," neither she nor they envisioned that she would one day organize an international conference on a little known pope who was a major influence on the Italian Enlightenment.

The conference, to be held April 30 to May 2, will be hosted by Washington University, Saint Louis University and the Missouri Historical Society. It will bring together European and American scholars to discuss and interpret the accomplishments of "The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV (1675-1758)." It is the first conference in the United States devoted to this historic figure.

The conference is an offshoot of Messbarger's studies of women in the Italian Enlightenment and especially of one woman, Anna Morandi Manzolini. Messbarger's 2010 book on this artist, "The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini" has received international attention. It has been nominated for the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award honoring "an especially distinguished book in the history of art."

Messbarger is enthused about her investigations and writing. "What a tremendous adventure! It has allowed me to learn art history, the history of science and the history of the church. So many intersecting stories."

Messbarger, an associate professor of Romance languages and literature at Washington University, became intrigued with Anna Morandi Manzolini when she wrote her first book on distinguished women in the Italian Enlightenment. She kept coming across brief references to this woman.

A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Venice cafe led her to Bologna, its ancient university and finally to the collection of Morandi's exquisitely accurate wax anatomical models. She immediately realized she had found her next book.

First she took a sabbatical to learn anatomy. She received a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allowing her to take gross anatomy at Washington University School of Medicine. She observed surgeries. These experiences gave her a deeper appreciation of Morandi's work.

"I saw the vivid colors and shapes of the living body during surgery and contrasted them with the flat, gray organs of the cadaver I was dissecting. Who knew that the intestines are sunset orange or that the muscles holding the eye in place resemble a sea star? Morandi did and showed it in her wax models," Messbarger said.

An Artist And A Scholar

Morandi's story had been forgotten for two and a half centuries. As Messbarger uncovered original documents, it emerged as a remarkable history of an artist and scientist.

Morandi was born in Bologna is 1714, the same year as the establishment of the city's Institute of Sciences. This institute, intended to be the Italian version of the Royal Academy in London or the Academie des Sciences in Paris, was a state-of-the-art facility. It employed professional scientists who specialized in learning through experimentation. Messbarger likens it to St. Louis' Danforth Plant Science Center, where her husband Sam Fiorello is chief operating officer.

Morandi trained as an artist. She married Giovanni Manzolini, who at that time was chief assistant at the institute's wax anatomical museum. She became his partner in anatomical science and modeling when he left the institute; and together they created their own anatomical studio in their home. There they did their dissections, modeling and Morandi lectured on anatomy.

When Manzolini died unexpectedly, leaving Morandi with two young children, she continued their work. She performed over a thousand dissections, likely on her kitchen table, specializing in the sensory organs and the male reproductive system. She continued giving lectures and demonstrations and became a fixture of the European Grand Tour.

Despite her fame, however, this single mother was extremely poor. She had to give up her 11-year-old son for adoption. Bologna granted her a tiny stipend. Near the end of her life, ill and destitute, she asked the Bolognese senate for a raise. It was refused.

Catherine the Great of Russia, a great admirer and collector of Morandi's works, found out about her situation. She sent an envoy to see if Morandi would move to Russia. When Count Vincenzo Ranuzzi, a senator of Bologna, caught wind of this, he moved Morandi into his palazzo and bought her collection before the Russian empress could. He subsequently sold it to the city, where it even now resides at the Palazzo Poggi Museum. Recently art restorers have brought the pieces to their original splendor.

In yet another unexpected encounter, Messbarger learned about the offer from Catherine the Great when giving a talk about Morandi at Trinity College in Dublin. A Russian scholar introduced himself, saying he was editing Catherine the Great's unpublished letters. Those letters told the tale of the empress' near obsession with Morandi.

Messbarger followed the thread to the Ranuzzi family archives in Bologna. There an archivist led her to an unlabeled, uncatalogued box where she found many documents and letters used in her book.

The Enlightenment Pope

How does the Morandi story lead to a symposium on Benedict XIV?

The pope was a supporter, instrumental in getting Bologna to grant Morandi a lectureship in anatomy with a small stipend. He also authorized her supply of fresh body parts for dissection and, as archbishop of Bologna, sent out notifications to parish priests to convince parishioners that donating the bodies of the deceased for medical dissection was a church-sanctioned contribution to the public health.

In Benedict's Italy, learned women, especially scientists like Morandi, were honored. This was not the case in the rest of Europe.

Benedict XIV, born Prospero Lambertini, came from an aristocratic Bolognese family. He was trained in experimental science and went to Rome to learn canon law. Eventually he became custodian of the Vatican library and "promoter of the faith." His four-volume work on the canonization and beatification of saints is still used today. It relies heavily on anatomical knowledge -- the difference, for example, between a stigmata and an ulcer.

He was obsessed with restoring the scientific reputation of the University of Bologna. When Lambertini was made archbishop of Bologna in 1732, he determined to restore the city's scientific luster by means of the Institute of Sciences. On a trip through the laboratories he saw two wax models of human kidneys. "At that moment," says Messbarger, "he decided to found the first museum of anatomy, based on wax models."

This museum is where the history of the future pope intersects Morandi's story.

"When Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740," says Messbarger, "chief among his ambitions was to advocate for the compatibility between faith and science. Galileo's condemnation for heresy in 1633 and the subsequent repression of experimental science (were) a public relations disaster for the church in the rest of Europe. Benedict sanctioned the publication of all of Galileo's complete works as a signal that Italy had joined the Enlightenment."

For a while at least, Messbarger will continue to focus on anatomical wax modeling. Her next book concerns the featured attraction at Florence's Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History: the deconstructable Anatomical Venus. This Venus, sprawled on a silken bed, can be taken apart layer by layer, and her parts held in the hand.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching technical writing at WU's engineering school.

Jo Seltzer