The Body as Microcosm

William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.

William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.

  • William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, title page.
  • William Cowper (Govard Bidloo), The anatomy of humane bodies, pub. by C.B. Albinus, 2nd ed. 1737, pl. 27.

The Body as Microcosm

In the first century BCE, the Roman author Vitruvius wrote: “just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.” [book 3, chapter 1]  Manuscript copies of Vitruvius’s text do not include illustrations and so authors who have translated and edited his work generally include images to clarify the meaning of his difficult, technical Latin.
The circle and square have been considered the most perfect shapes since Plato, who theorized that a set of proportional relationships expressed in regular geometric forms governed the structure of the cosmos and were the cause of beauty in music and the visible world.  Vitruvius taught that the same simple forms and proportions could be found in the human body and were the source of beauty in architecture.
The copiously illustrated 1521 Como edition of Vitruvius published by the Milanese engineer Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) includes two wood-block prints representing the same passage.  Cesariano distorts the length of the arms and legs, hands and feet, in order for his man to fit the Vitruvian ideal.
Visualizations of Vitruvius’s ideas about beauty, proportion, and the human body gave his work renewed meaning in the Renaissance and continued to resonate well into the twentieth century, as evidenced by Le Corbusier’s “Modulor Man.”


Le Corbusier, Poem of the Right Angle (1955)

Reflecting on a six-decade long career that ran from the late nineteenth century to the post-World War II era, the Swiss-born artist Le Corbusier (1887-1965) composed his Poem of the Right Angle (Le Poème de l’Angle Droit) between 1947 in 1953.  The work is a summation of his life-long enquiry into the principles of aesthetics, which he explored through media ranging from painting and architecture to ceramics and textiles.
Unlike his earlier publications that combined photography and type to convey ideas about mass-production, standardization, and modernity, Le Corbusier’s hand is present throughout the pages of the Poem of the Right Angle.  Limited-edition color lithographs accompany each section of the poem, and typography is rejected in favor of the artist’s own script.  Abandoning perspective, idealization, and the naturalistic use of color (the copies of Renaissance paintings in the Cloister are exemplary of these principles) the form and content of the Poem of the Right Angle celebrate the beauty and immediacy of spontaneous human experience.
The concept of proportion is central to Le Corbusier’s ideas about beauty. In antiquity, it was believed that the cosmos was ordered by a fundamental set of proportional relationships, an idea revived during the Renaissance. Simple geometrical forms – square, circle, sphere – embody these proportions and were believed to be beautiful and perfect.

Le Corbusier, the Modulor Man

Central to Le Corbusier’s ideas about proportion were the Fibonacci numbers, a sequence in which each term is the sum of the previous two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.  Finding this principle in natural forms – from the spiral of the nautilus shell to the length of different parts of the human body – Le Corbusier developed a sequence of standardized measurements called the Modulor.
The accord of these preferred measurements with the human body is represented in the “Modulor Man,” a standing, male figure that incorporates the principle of the Fibonacci numbers in the following manner.  The distance from the ground to the hand above the head is 2.26 meters; from the ground to the top of the head is 1.83 meters; the difference is 0.43 meters.  From the ground to the navel is 1.13 meters; from the navel to the top of the head is 0.70 meters.  These dimensions are terms in a Fibonacci sequence:

0.43 | 0.70 | 1.13 | 1.83
The Modulor could be extended indefinitely in both directions to generate a sequence of preferred measurements that functioned in metric as well as feet-and-inches.  Systematic use of the Modulor, Le Corbusier asserted, would guarantee the creation of beautiful forms in harmony with nature and the human body.  The Modulor was a tool Le Corbusier believed could unite humanity, a goal he shared with his one-time collaborator, Otto Neurath.

Cowper, The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, 2nd ed. (1737)
Title Page

 A reader of The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is greeted with this title page, the publisher’s description of the book.  The volume’s illustrations and the exemplary status of the illustrators are noted first, a telling placement that not only indicates the enormous appeal visual diagrams of scientific information had at the time, but also signals the important function of pictures in the process of learning generally.
The phrase “DRAWN AFTER THE LIFE” corresponds to the impulse toward veracity in both scientific disciplines and the fine arts.  Bidloo illustrated in front of his specimen, not unlike a portraitist observing and drawing in the presence of his subject, or “drawing from life.” His anatomical illustrations – split brains, ribboned skin, veins fanned out – were indeed drawn after the lifetime of the person: only a dead man could confess this much about the internal operations of living. Anatomical knowledge can only surface after the life. This phrase identifies the specimens as dead, and further emphasizes that death is predicated on having lived. Pressing ever more firmly on the distinction between the reader’s living and the subject’s deadness, “AFTER THE LIFE” sonically recalls “afterlife,” a state beyond both life and death, a term that potentially recharges the anatomized body with spirituality.

Plate 27 | Upper Torso; back muscles exposed
Plate 30 | Upper Torso; spine exposed; wrists bound

Prior to the modern era, bodies of convicted criminals were most readily available, sentenced not only to death but also to dissection, a public punishment that served as a moralizing warning to citizens. The bound wrists in plate 30 recall a handcuffed convict, reminding us of her likely status as a criminal punished in life and in death. Used to keep her corpse in position for dissection and illustration, the bindings signal a body as intractable in death as it was in life.

In her advancing dissection, the cadaver’s female gender remains intact through a system of aesthetic markers: a delicately turned wrist, manicured fingernails, and nipped-in waist. These qualities, however, are parenthetical to our understanding of the spine and musculature of the back; instead, they unnecessarily signal a gendered body. In this illustration, femininity becomes as much at issue as the vertebral column. Her long hair still braided and tucked into a drapery like a bridal veil, it feels as though we have encountered a woman at her bath; only, it isn’t a robe slipping down her curvaceous torso, but her skin peeling from her body. Dissection here is a type of undressing, a sexualizing aesthetic that foregrounds the erotic potential of any female body and presumes her obliging desire and complacency -- her incapacitation notwithstanding.

Here, both the feminine body and female sexuality are revealed as unwieldy, requiring not only moral but physical control to correct her unacceptable behavior, and restrain her undisciplined body in both life and death. The reward for such control is medical knowledge, as well as the erotic pleasure of objectification that is embedded in the patriarchal gaze.

Plate 67 | Muscles for Bending the Fingers and Carpus (Wrist)
Seeking scientific accuracy and professional reliability, early anatomical studies required illustrators to work alongside dissectors.  In this drawings of the arm, the dissector’s tools are included – a wood block propping up the elbow, a bolt of cloth cradling the delicate wrist, and tiny scaffoldings lifting tendon from bone.  Making an aesthetic choice to present these practical necessities of dissection, the artist suggests that he – with his own hands – thoroughly and precisely captured the anatomist’s procedures that revealed the construction of the human hand.  Each block or pin is made to speak for the credibility of both the image and its maker, as if to say these hands were drawn accurately, down to the very tools that opened them.

Plate 70 | Muscles which Extend the Carpus, Fingers, and Thumb
The hand, flayed and pinned, is understood to be lifeless – clearly, this is the arm of a cadaver.  Its fingers, however, gently curve around the edge of the wooden board as if they are about to move.  With the highly-textured fabric draped over the shoulder, the image recalls slumber more than death, like a sleeping man with an arm poking out from under his bed sheets.  The aestheticization of the anatomized body calls into question distinctions between the living and the dead and how durable those distinctions might be, ultimately reminding us of the incomprehensibility of death in the mind of the living.

Plate 71 | Muscles for Extending the Carpus and Fingers
Pins and mounts might be expected in a dissection, but the book in plate 71 is a more curious object.  Hugging the edge of the book, the cadaver’s bicep nudges the cover slightly open, literally inserting itself as an anatomical specimen among its pages.  On the one hand, the book does the aesthetic work of concealing the gruesome site of amputation, as well as displays the pulled-out muscles; on the other, it symbolically links the cadaver’s body with text and the authoritative knowledge we associate with written language.

The presence of the book itself is not so unlikely since anatomists depended upon previous anatomical texts as guides in their own dissections. Whether or how a book was used as a tool in Cowper’s lab remains ambiguous. Bidloo’s aesthetic decision to include it as part of the dissection record, however, can be seen as a claim for the legitimacy of illustrations as educational tools. Such drawings are intended to be “read” for specialized information. His artistic decisions convey information, as well as trigger aesthetic associations with learning and knowledge.  Is it ever possible to see a “scientific” image and not have an aesthetic re