Luuc Kooijmans explores the work of Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch, known for his remarkable ‘still life’ displays which blurred the boundary between scientific preservation and vanitas art.
When visiting Frederik Ruysch in Amsterdam in 1697, tsar Peter the Great kissed one of the specimens from his anatomical museum, and afterwards bought the entire collection. Three hundred years later, the Dutch crown prince, Willem Alexander, when visiting St Petersburg, was withheld from seeing Ruysch’s work. Diplomats had decided the prince had to be spared the sight of the ‘macabre, deformed foetuses’ that Ruysch had preserved.
The Italian author Giacomo Leopardi did not find the preparations horrifying either. In his ‘Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and His Mummies’, Ruysch is awakened at midnight by his cadavers, who have come to life in his studio and are singing in chorus. Ruysch, watching through a crack in the door, exclaims, ‘Good heavens! Who on earth taught music to these dead people, who are crowing like roosters in the middle of the night? I’m in a cold sweat and almost more dead than they are. I didn’t realize that just because I saved them from decay they would come back to life.’ He then enters his studio and says, ‘Children, what kind of game are you playing? Have you forgotten that you’re dead? What’s this racket all about? Has the tsar’s visit gone to your head?’ One of the dead tells Ruysch that they can speak for a quarter of an hour, so he asks them for a brief description of what they felt when they were at death’s door. They assure him that dying is like falling asleep, like a dissolving of consciousness, and not at all painful. They declare that death, the fate of all living things, has brought them peace. For them, life is but a memory, and although they are not happy, at least they are free of old sorrows and fears.