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Cutting It Both Ways: Dissection of the Male Anatomy as Castration
by James Glisson

Figure 1
The erotic connection between female dissection and anatomical illustration was apparent from early on in the history of printed atlases. One 16th-century source admonished “that in particular during the demonstration of the female genitalia, they [students and professors] should contemplate everything with chaste eyes.”1 A blatant demonstration of this connection appears in Charles Estienne’s De dissectione partium corporis humani of 1545. Estienne illustrated the female reproductive system and gravid uterus by borrowing poses from a series of erotic prints by Jacopo Caraglio that were based on drawings by the late Renaissance artists Perino del Vaga and Rosso Fiorentino. Entitled Loves of the Gods, this series illustrated the erotic dalliances of classical gods with varying degrees of explicitness. Many of Estienne’s depictions of dissected female nudes quote from these provocative images. For instance, this anatomical study (Fig. 1) draws directly on Caraglio’s depiction of Venus and Cupid (Fig. 2). In both images, the female figure’s pose is the same, but in Estienne’s illustration there is a somewhat clumsy woodblock insert showing the anatomy of the placenta. Estienne’s anatomical female figures spread themselves suggestively out on plush pillows in bedrooms surrounded by thick drapes. The anatomy theater and the bedroom often appear to be one and the same, conflated for the purposes of fantasy and edification. For male anatomists, the female’s body, dead or alive, was shot through with erotic possibilities.

Figure 2
But what of the dissected male body for a male audience? Like a female corpse, the male is equally available for viewing, prodding, cutting, and voyeurism. However, most images of dissected males employ a different tactic. Dissection of male genitalia often seems to have been visually associated with castration. In contrast to the womb, which can only be revealed through the removal of many layers of integument, the penis and scrotum are right out in the open. Anatomical dissection emasculated, rather than revealed the male sex and thus was indistinguishable from castration. Both acts were understood to remove the primary outward sign of masculinity and with it virility and manhood. Put another way, far from being titillating or uncovering the dark recesses of the body under the scalpel and light of the anatomy theater (the typical connotations associated with dissecting the female body), male anatomical dissection removed the male sex entirely, leaving nothing behind, not even the corpse’s masculinity.
Figure 3

Evidence of this concern with castration appears in the form of phallic punning in 16th-century representations. For instance, in a Dürer woodcut, Men’s Bath (1497), a figure leans against a post with a strategically placed spigot. In Guilio Romano’s fresco Woman with Goat and Herm (Palazzo del Te, Mantua, 1527-30), a woman grips the horn growing from the head of a herm with one hand. With her other hand she grips the horn of the goat she is straddling. Posing as a phallic stand-in, both horns metonymically suggest what cannot be shown directly. In Charles Estienne’s De dissectione, there are similar puns. In one image (Fig. 3) the phallus is replaced by a length of flayed stomach muscle, and in the other (Fig. 4), a tree branch helpfully juts out from between the figure’s legs. These substitutions may have been intended to help assuage the male viewer’s anxieties and sense of the uncanny in the face of the castrating act of dissection.

Figure 4
It may have been for similar reasons that Vesalius turned to antique statuary as a source for his images. Vesalius purposefully exploited antique sculpture in order to draw a parallel between artistic canons and narrative conceptions of the body. As Glenn Harcourt has pointed out, this allowed Vesalius “to retain, even in his visceral demonstrations, some sense of the teleological relationship between structure and function while at the same time avoiding the onus of necessary violation that so often attended such representation.”2 In other words, antique statuary provided a way to make the structural links between organs legible while also defining their locations. The statue functioned to make the structural links between organs legible while also defining their locations. Additionally, because ancient statuary was already static and inert, it could not be subject to the violation of dissection in the same way as the living body. Estienne’s phallic puns in De dissectione similarly distance the male viewer from blunt, naked, dismembered corporeality through a visual, if not totally effective, legerdemain.

What then of the problem of male-to-male voyeurism? Estienne’s atlas borrowed from artistic and anatomical fashions associated with Italy. The naturalistic depiction of the figures, the poses borrowed from Caraglio’s prints, and the typefaces were all Italian in origin. In fact, the earliest versions of the atlas’s illustrations are dated to Estienne’s time in Padua where he studied botany, Greek, and anatomy. Wrapped up in a French rage for all things Italian was also suspicion of sodomy, sexual perversion, and decadent foreign influence. Rebecca Zorach dubs the relationship between France and Italy during the 16th century as “xenohomophobic.” Terms like style, mode, façon, manière are identified by her as being specifically French terms of abuse and derision applied to imported Italian linguistic affectations, dress, art, etc.3 A common term for sodomy in France at the time was the “Italian vice.” Henri Estienne, father of Charles, complained about the effeminizing of French and Frenchmen by the Italian language and mores.4 The image of the man with the flayed stomach muscle in his hand likely brought Italian and sodomical associations to mind because of the broader issue of Italian influence in French culture at the time. The male figures place the male audience in the position of visually consuming the male body as they would a woman’s. This may explain why twelve out of the thirty-two male figures who have visible genitals have been castrated. Furthermore, intact penises and scrotums are extremely small, sometimes so slight as to be difficult to see. By removing them, a male viewer would not be confronted with the most mordant sign of male sexuality, yet its removal perhaps proved just as unsettling. The puns allay the uncanny effect that an all-male audience experienced when confronted with castration, and castration itself perhaps softened the possibility of male-to-male erotic interest.

1. Quoted in Patricia Simons, “Anatomical Secrets: Pudenda and the Pudica Gesture,” in Gisela Engel, et al., eds. Das Geheimnis am Beginn der europäischen Moderne (Frankfurt a. M, 2002) 316.
2. See Glenn Harcourt, “Andreas Vesalius and the Anatomy of Antique Sculpture,” Representations 17 (Winter 1987).
3. See Rebecca E. Zorach, “The Matter of France: Sodomy and the Scandal of Style in Sixteenth-Century France,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 (1998).
4. See Winifried Schleiner, “Linguistic ‘Xenohomophobia’ in Sixteenth-Century France: The Case of Henri Estienne,” Sixteenth Century Journal 34, no. 3 (2003).


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