The mysterious ”Anatomical Machines” from Cappella Sansevero

Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh Prince of Sansevero, was born in 1710. He studied at the Clementine College of Jesuits Priests in Rome, where amongst his teachers were Carlo Spinola and Domenico Quateironi, renowned in mathematics and hydrostatics respectively. He would not become as famous as them – instead, he would become illustrious. He moved in the highest social circles and corresponded with the greatest scientific scholars of his town. He was very much like Leonardo da Vinci: an inventor, interested in the human body, and apparently also interested in alchemy, though it is not always clear whether he practiced advanced science (chemistry) or alchemy – if there is a difference.
It was under the eccentric hand of Raimondo di Sangro, the Prince of Sansevero, that the Cappella Sansevero began to form the collection it has today. The head of the Neapolitan Masonic lodge, Raimondo di Sangro was a true Renaissance man, an ardent disciple of the sciences, practitioner of alchemy, a mystic, inventor and polyglot.

The prince spoke numerous languages including Arabic and Hebrew, and is known as an inventor: while still a student, he impressed his teachers with constructing a folding stage that saved an important theatrical performance; he invented an hydraulic device that could pump water to any height; he made an “eternal flame”; he built a carriage with wooden horses that, driven by an internal mechanical system, could travel on both land and water; he developed a printing press that could print different colours in a single impression. He was a friend and close aide to King Charles IV of Naples, for whom he invented a water-proof cape to protect him from the rain while hunting. He also invented a double-barrelled harquebus. 

Like Leonardo, he had a passion for war machines. During his military command, he made a cannon out of lightweight materials that had a longer range than the standard cannons of the time. But his intellect went further: he did not merely invent, he was also a military strategist; he penned down a treatise on the employment of infantry, for which he was even praised by Frederick II of Prussia.

Among the quaint streets and museums, one can find a place called The Cappella Sansevero, or the Sansevero Chapel, also called the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà. The chapel itself dates back to 1590, and was built by the Duke of Torremaggiore, John Francesco di Sangro, on the grounds of the affluent Sansevero family as a private place of worship, and later was converted into a family burial chapel under the hand of Alessandro di Sangro in 1613. It wasn’t until between 1749 and 1766, when Prince Raimondo di Sangro commissioned major renovations, that the chapel began to take on the baroque, masonic inspired form it exhibits today. Raimondo di Sangro went to great lengths to hire some of the most well known artists of the time to help turn the chapel into a luxurious and lavish showcase of artwork.

It is a beautifully crafted chapel that is home to some of the best works of the top Italian artists of the 18th century; truly a dynamic treasure of Italy’s artistic heritage. Yet among all of the intricate paintings and marvelous sculptures, one may come across the more bizarre aspects of the chapel. As one peruses the various works of art here, it soon becomes evident that some of the weirder and more eccentric creations that Italy had to offer are displayed in its halls. The strangeness gets weirder and weirder and if you happen to stray off into the underground chambers of the chapel, you are bound to come face to face with one of the creepiest and little understood works of art ever produced by human hands; the enigmatic and baffling human machines of Cappella Sansevero.

The origins of the chapel is dark but it said that when an innocent man was dragged to jail, passing in front of the garden of the di Sangro Palace, where he saw a part of the garden wall crumble and an image of the Blessed Virgin appear. The man promised to give a silver medallion to the Virgin if he was proven innocent, which indeed happened. He kept his promise and from that moment onwards, the sacred image became a place of many more blessings. Later, Giovan Francesco Paolo di Sangro, first Prince of Sansevero, was very sick and went to see the Madonna, in search of a cure. This too was granted and hence he built a small chapel, the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta or Pietatella. Around 1590, the chapel became the resting place of the di Sangro family. Later, Alessandro, Patriarch of Alexandria and Archbishop of Benevento, began modifying and transforming the chapel, before Raimondo took it to the present level of refinement. 

William St Clair invited foreign artists to work on Rosslyn Chapel; Di Sangro commissioned the greatest artists of the time, including the Venetian Corradini, as well as Queirolo and Sammartino, to sculpt statues for his church. Like William St Clair, Raimondo did not just limit himself to commissioning the works; he also personally selected the marble, suggested techniques and subjects for each work and decided the location of the masterpieces. When he died in 1771, the church indeed grew into his legacy and is now seen as the centre of Neapolitan Baroque; it is indeed believed to contain a cryptic, Masonic message that many have tried to unravel.

When we look at the chapel today, there is little to suggest that the church has a uniform symbolic message to impart to the visitor. Certain features have symbolic connotations – which the guidebooks explain. Some features have a “double entendre” that suggest di Sangro could indeed be an initiate of some intriguing esoteric tradition, but these clues are sporadic and do not move throughout the chapel in a consistent manner – and are sometimes contradictory.
Perhaps the reason for this is that what we see today, is not exactly how De Sangrio had imagined it to be. At the end of the stroll through the chapel, the visitor is led down into what was meant to be a small cave. The original plans show that this room was to be enlarged and set up for the entombment of his descendants. For an unknown reason, the project was never completed.

On the floor is a rectangular marble slab, a visual clue that it was here that the Veiled Christ of Sanmartino was supposed to have been placed. Instead, this extraordinary sculpture is located in the centre of the chapel above, where it sits as the true artistic masterpiece for which most tourists come to this site. The room was equally supposed to be illuminated by an eternal light that di Sangro had invented, but no trace of that is found either. Instead, it harbours two glass showcases in which the skeletons of a man and a woman are visible. The vein and artery systems of these two individuals remain perfectly intact.

It is a story that the sculptor of the famous Veiled Christ within the Sansevero chapel had been "rewarded" by the person who commissioned the work by having his eyes put out so that he would never again create such a work of beauty!

The skeletons were the work of di Sangro and his physician Guiseppe Salerno. The woman’s skeleton has her right arm raised and his eye balls are still intact, almost shiny, in a truly terrified expression. But what is remarkable are the veins and internal organs, which would be expected to disintegrate soon after death. Instead, they remain in perfect state centuries after their creation. Her heart is whole and you can even see the blood vessels in her mouth. She was pregnant and in her belly you can see the open placenta from which the umbilical cord is spilling out and then joining the foetus. Just like his mother’s, this unborn baby’s skull can be opened to see the complex network of blood vessels inside. The male version of the anatomic machine has more or less the same features, the only difference being that his arms are not raised but rest along his trunk.

 “A Brief Note on What Can be Seen in the House of the Prince of San Severo”, published in 1766, and therefore most likely written by the Prince himself, reads: “In the Chapel one can see two Anatomic Machines, that is, skeletons, a male and a female, made by injection, which because of their being complete and of their having undergone such diligent treatment, can be said to be unique in all of Europe”. It is believed that the veins were injected with a certain substance which, upon entering the circulatory system, gradually blocked it up to the point of causing the death of the subject. At that point, the substance might have “metalicized” the veins and arteries, preserving them from decomposition. Others state that the preservation method was performed on dead bodies, but as blood no longer travels in a dead body, we need to ask how all the veins were preserved. Equally, it is known that the Prince must have waited for the skin and flesh to completely decompose before obtaining what he calls the “anatomic machines”.

That is not the only problem: the hypodermic syringe that would have been necessary to make the “injection” was officially only invented one hundred years later by a surgeon from Lyon, Carlo Gabriele Pravaz (1791-1853). Hence, others have stated that di Sangro “merely” took a skeleton and covered it with an artificial network of blood vessels. Some believe he used wax to create the arteries. But: tests performed on the “machines” in the 1950s revealed that “the whole system of blood vessels, upon analysis, showed that it was metalicized, that is they were soaked in and kept their shape by the metals settling in it”. It is also known that di Sangro was able to compose a material similar to the substance – deemed to be blood – in the ampoule of San Gennaro, a precious relic that Naples continues to worship each January and which is said to miraculously liquefy during the ceremony; in fact, di Sangro did not want to underline too much that what he had invented was identical to the relic’s substance, but “like” it. Still, how the Prince accomplished this and the two “anatomical machines” remains a mystery.

No wonder that when people saw these skeletons, di Sangro became the subject of gossip and wild rumours. Some people claimed that he was a sorcerer, a diabolical alchemist who ordered people to be kidnapped, so that he could perform heinous experiments on their bodies. Others argued that he was a godless predator of young boys who he later castrated. There were even those who said that he ordered the killing of seven cardinals and then made the same number of chairs out of their bones and skin.

Thixotropy is the property of some gels or fluids that are thick under normal conditions to flow when shaken or agitated. That describes what happens in the purported miracle of San Gennaro: a vial of clotted blood turns liquid, producing the miracle. I make it a point not to judge the miracles of others. The French mathematician and geographer, Charles Marie de la Condamine describes how di Sangro manipulated a vial containing mercury, tin and bismuth—the amalgam of which appeared to be clotted blood—such as to obtain a similar "miracle" of liquefaction. Di Sangro was already in hot water with the Vatican, and this bit of "blasphemy" didn't help.

There is however truth in the story of the castrated boys. One of his hobbies was “bel canto” – singing. Di Sangro had married Carlotta Caetani of Aragon, a relative on his mother’s side, and had five children (Vincenzo, Paolo, Gianfrancesco, Carlotta and Rosalia), but he still enjoyed going around his many estates looking for young boys with beautiful voices. Usually he would find them in the church choir, from which he would “buy” them from their parents, however not, as some may think, for sexual pleasures; indeed, it seems quite the opposite: Giuseppe Salerno castrated them, after which they would be locked up in the Conservatory of Jesus Christ’s Poor in Naples, where they started their careers as “sopranists”.

To the townsfolk, this all seemed a bit…dark wizardish. A “black legend” arose about the prince and local rumors flew that the prince could create blood out of nothing, that he was a Rosicrucian (as a Mason he was close enough), and that he had people killed in order to carry out his dark experiments. (It only added to his dark reputation that a grisly murder, with which the Prince had nothing to do, took place in his family home.)

Ignoring the speculation on his evil ways, the Prince went about his business collecting an interesting
set of artistic and scientific objects. Among these were two “anatomical machines” showing a man and a pregnant woman. (There was once an anatomical fetus displayed as well, but it was stolen from the museum.) Built on real human skeletons, these fleshless bodies represent the veins, arteries and musculature in amazing detail. Long thought to be made by an early form of plastination, they were recently discovered to be made – with the exception of the human skeletons – of beeswax, iron wire, and silk.

The anatomical “Adam and Eve” was made by anatomist Giuseppe Salerno and was meant to illustrate the viscera and arterial systems of human beings. But they also furthered the “black legend” around the prince, and many believed that the prince had two of his servants killed to use their bodies in the construction of the models.

Working one’s way down a modest staircase into the lower reaches of the chapel, one will first encounter an unusual painting dating from 1750 by the Roman artist Giuseppe Pesce called Madonna con Bambino, which was painted using a unique wax-based paint also created solely for its creation by the mysterious Prince Raimondo. Beyond this painting are by far the chapel’s most enigmatic and unsettling residents; two bizarre half flesh, half metal creations often called “anatomical models,” and more morbidly as “anatomical machines.” These “anatomical machines” were commissioned by Prince Raymond and created by the anatomist Giuseppe Salerno in 1760. The sculptures, if one can call really them that, are of a man and a pregnant woman, dubbed Adam and Eve, and are built over actual human skeletons with slightly askew bones connected by metal pins and wires. There was once even a fetus included within the pregnant woman but it is thought to have been stolen long ago. These two skeletons are overlaid with a complex, twisting network of metal tendrils and hardened arteries and veins which represent the arterial system, viscera and musculature of human beings with amazing, meticulous accuracy. The skulls of the two figures are hinged, and can be opened to reveal an incredibly detailed spiderweb of blood vessels within. Upon their unveiling, the disturbing models were so mystifying and grotesque that it was believed that the dark Prince had actually used his black magic and alchemy on some of his unwilling servants to morph them into these abominations.

Regardless of whether they are the result of black magic or not, Adam and Eve present a number of very real mysteries, not the least of which is how they were made in the first place. For years the method of construction was the source of bafflement among scientists and doctors. Were the intricate hardened circulatory systems real, and if so how did they remain so remarkably well preserved for over 200 years? Were they artificial? If so, how could they be reproduced so faithfully? Since there was little to no documentation as to the original creation of the anatomical machines, these were questions for which the answers long remained elusive. The main theory was that the two anatomical machines were created through a process known as plasticization, or “human metallization,” which involves injecting substances directly into the circulatory systems of subjects while they were still living, after which these materials would travel along the veins and harden, painfully killing the unfortunate victim in the process. However, no one really knew for sure.

A more detailed examination of Adam and Eve later showed that they held no evidence of the use of injected substances such as hardening materials or embalming chemicals of any kind. Through various sophisticated tests such as scanning electron microscopy and infrared spectroscopy, it was found that the veins themselves were comprised of a core of twisted metal and silk fibers that was then covered with a layer of a mixture of colored waxes, mostly beeswax. This detailed analysis helped to shed light on the creation of the mysterious Adam and Eve, but it still hasn’t been resolved exactly how the original creator managed to carry it out or indeed why. It is also unclear whether the two subjects were killed for the sole purpose of turning them into these twisted anatomical machines or if they had died before hand and were then changed postmortem. Considering that few records on their actual creation and early history exist, it is quite possible that we will never know for sure.

Whatever the reasons for their creation or the methods by which they were crafted, the anatomical machines of Sansevero Chapel certainly rank among some of the weirdest, most twisted works of art ever conceived of by the human imagination. If the eccentric, allegedly black magic wielding alchemist Prince Raimondo di Sangro was intentionally trying to freak people out, then it was a job very well done indeed.

He even wrote his own epitaph:   

A person to be admired, born to dare…illustrious in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, unsurpassed in discovering the secrets of nature and esteemed master of the military arts…this temple is dedicated to his everlasting memory.

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