The Anatomical Machines of Raimondo di Sangro

Jun 22, 2021 0 comments

Housed in glass cases in the basement of Sansevero Chapel in Naples, Italy, are two extraordinary exhibits. Called “anatomical machines”, they are two skeletons, one belonging to a man and the other to women. Draped over their bones is an intricate maze of veins, arteries and capillaries that crawl all over the skeletons’ legs, arms, skulls and ribs. For centuries it was rumored that the veins and arteries were real and the two figures were murdered to have their circulatory system preserved by some trick of alchemy.

Anatomical Machines

Photo: get directly down/Flickr

The figures were commissioned by Prince Raimondo di Sangro, and realized by Giuseppe Salerno, an anatomist from Palermo, around 1763. Legend has it that Salerno had, under the Prince’s direction, injected a mysterious embalming substance into two of his servants while they were still alive which caused their blood to turn into metal, perfectly preserving their circulatory system after death. In reality, the blood vessels were constructed using metal wires, colored wax and silk, but their reproduction is so accurate that even modern scientists believe that experiments with injections on victims might have been performed prior to reconstruction.

If there was someone who was capable of such experiments, it was definitely Raimondo di Sangro. An alchemist and inventor, Sangro developed a method of mixing fireworks with different chemicals to produce an array of colors: turquoise, citrus yellow, the yellow of orange, the color of milk, and the red of rubies. He organized pyrotechnical theaters where he produced varied patterns and outlines of temples, architectural vistas, huts and fountains using fireworks alone. His fireworks also produced whistling tunes that reminded of birds singing.

Raimondo di Sangro

Raimondo di Sangro

Once in his lab, Sangro accidentally set fire to a substance, which ignited continuously for more than three months without the slightest reduction in weight. The details of Sangro’s “perpetual lamp” is now lost, although he did reveal that it contained grounded human bones. He knew how to fake precious stones like lapis lazuli, jasper and even diamonds that were indistinguishable from the real thing. Sangro produced a paste which when hardened looks like marble.

Of course, a man with such talent inevitably attracted rumors. People said that Sangro could extract blood from manure, that he could resurrect plants, insects and small animals from their ashes, and that he had people killed so that he could use their bones and skin for experiments.

Some part of the prince’s mystique comes from superstitious rumors of murder and black magic; others come from the flattering myths that he himself spread. But both sources, positive and negative, center around one image: a gifted man on the threshold between life and death, capable of both killing and resurrection. This is perhaps most clear in the legend of di Sangro’s death, which recounts that before di Sangro died, he had himself hacked into pieces and placed in a chest. But the chest was opened too soon, “while the pieces of the body were still welding together.” He awoke for an instant, tried to rise, then shrieked and fell to pieces once again.

Amelia Soth, The Anatomical Machines of Naples’ Alchemist Prince, JStor

The anatomical machines in Sansevero Chapel originally contained a third skeleton, that of a fetus, located at the feet of the woman. The woman was apparently pregnant when she died, probably in child birth, and Sangro had her skeleton along with that of her unborn child preserved. The fetus was unfortunately stolen in the 1990s.

Anatomical Machines

Photo: Sansevero Chapel Museum

Anatomical Machines

Photo: Sansevero Chapel Museum

Anatomical Machines

Photo: Sansevero Chapel Museum

# Anatomical Machines, Sansevero Chapel Museum
# Wikipedia
# Amelia Soth, The Anatomical Machines of Naples’ Alchemist Prince, JStor


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