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Bradford Bouley

Saintly Anatomy

Last week was a conversation with Molly Wright Steenson and in a few instances we discussed the absence of representational tools for engaging the human body during the design process in architecture. The human body today is often still depicted through rather neutral scale figures that give very little pushback for informing spatial boundaries. Stick figures are inserted in physical models well as computer models to give scale to architectural massing, and Photoshop figures populate images to imply diversity of users or activities that might occur in those spaces. But very few tools (if any beyond crowd modeling) exist that provide feedback during the design process for how spaces and shapes are perceived by sensory abilities, how wearable technologies might interact with embedded technologies in the environment. 

The knowledge gained in how our body’s work is preceded by centuries of investigation, even as technologies today seek to augment or enhance many of those processes. This includes techniques like genetic engineering and Cryspr that intervene and rewrite how a human is formed or wearable technologies that can enhance how one sees with their eyes or hears the world around them.

In Brad Bouley’s new book Pious Postmortems’, Brad looks to a particular point in history in which empiricism (or the idea that knowledge can be derived from observing the world around you) was becoming an acceptable means for learning more about the anatomy and working of the human body. It’s unlikely that the Catholic Church comes to mind to anyone when thinking about who might have played a role in the advancement of the medical field, but as Brad discusses in today’s conversation, the church did play a role in advancing not only medicine but the approach of empiricism that would be so important in the 17th and 18th century.

Brad’s work looks to the 16th and 17th century when the Church turned to physicians to help consider the cases of an individual’s possible sainthood. As Brad says Contemporary theologians, physicians, and layman believed that normal human bodies were anatomically different from those of both very holy and very sinful individuals.” As the Church heard the cases of recently and long past deceased individuals, physicians were brought in, often to do autopsies, to identify aspects of anatomy that were beyond the realm of the natural, seen to be miracles. This included examples of incorruption in which the body produced sweet smells or little to no signs of decay. In other cases extreme example of decay in the kidneys or liver showed miraculous devotion and restraint and composure to pain by that individual during their life. Or, in some cases, the deformations of ribs to make room for an enlarged and therefore more loving heart. In being part of these investigations and observations, authority and respect was bestowed upon the physician and knowledge was gained for the profession and mankind.

Bradford Bouley

Bradford Bouley is associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a fellow at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti. His research focuses on the histories of religion and science in the early modern, especially Italian, context. His first book, Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2017. His work has also appeared in Catholic Historical Review, the Sixteenth Century Journal, and the Rivista di Storia del Cristianesimo. He is currently writing a second book entitled The Barberini Butchers: Meat, Murder and Warfare in Early Modern Italy, which will discuss food supply, warfare, and some early episodes in environmental history.

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