The Anatomist (Federico Andahazi)

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  Mateo Renaldo Colombo, "Il chirurgo" as his fellow countrymen called him, or, in his Paduan exile, "Il Cremonese," had studied pharmacopoeia and surgery at the university where he was now held prisoner. He was first Leoniens's most brilliant disciple and later that of Vesalius. It was Vesalius himself who proposed to the dean, Alessandro de Legnano, that his Cremonese disciple be his successor to the chair when, in 1542, he left to teach in Germany and Spain. Still very young, Mateo Colombo earned in his own right the title of Maestro dei Maestri, Teacher of Teachers. It made Alessandro de Legnano proud that his Cremonese employee should have been the first to discover the laws of pulmonary circulation, before the Englishman Harvey, who, most unjustly, would ultimately receive the laurels. Many had considered Mateo Colombo mad when he had declared that blood drew its oxygen from the lungs and that there were no orifices in the division between the two ventricles of the heart, thereby daring to refute Galen himself. And it was certainly a dangerous proposition: one year earlier, Miguel de Servet had been forced to flee Spain when, in his Christianismi Restitutio, he declared that blood was the soul of the flesh, anima ipsa est sanguins; his attempt to explain in anatomical terms the doctrine of the Holy Trinity led him to the stake in Geneva, where he was burned on green wood "to prolong his agony."1 But the laurels due to Mateo Colombo for his discovery were snatched up by the Englishman Harvey barely fifty years later--"the only anatomist," according to Hobbes in Dei Corpore, "to have seen his doctrine gain acceptance during his lifetime."

Mateo Colombo was eminently a man of the Renaissance: a child of the arts, a product of finery and ornament, the prodigal son of that world in which everything, from the domes of the cathedrals to the glasses from which the peasants drank, from the frescoes that decorated the palaces to the sickles with which the farmhands reaped their harvest, from the arches of the churches to the shepherds' wooden staffs--everything was prodigiously crafted. From that same stuff was made Mateo Colombo's soul; it had the same ornamental gracefulness, the same amiable gentilezza. In those days everyone was infused with the spirit of Leonardo: the artisan was an artist, the artist a scientist, the scientist a warrior, and the warrior an artisan. Knowledge meant knowing how to make something with your own hands. And, as if there were not enough examples already, Pope Eugene I had used his own hands to cut off the head of a treasonous prefect.

With the same skill with which he used the pen in his vellum-bound notebook, Mateo Colombo handled brushes and prepared paints with which he executed the most splendid anatomical charts. Had he wished, he would have been capable of painting like Luca Signorelli or like the great Michelangelo himself. In his self-portrait, he presented himself as a man of fine but imposing features, his black eyes and thick, dark beard betraying perhaps a Moorish ancestry. The forehead, high and prominent, is framed between parted hair that falls down to his shoulders. His hands are pale and delicate and his long, thin fingers lend him an almost feminine elegance. Between the index and the thumb, he holds a scalpel. This self-portrait is not only a faithful rendering of his physiognomy, but also of his obsession: if one looks carefully (because it is quite difficult to see) below the scalpel, in the lower section of the painting, one can make out, in a sort of vague mist, the naked and lifeless body of a woman. The painting brings to mind that of a contemporary: Sebastiano del Piombo's St. Bernard. The disproportion that exists between the beatific expression of the saint and the violent gesture as he pierces with his staff the body of a demon, is the same that can be seen between the anatomist's face and the act of sinking his scalpel into the female flesh. His expression is one of triumph.

In an age of great names and extraordinary celebrities, Mateo Colombo carried his own name like a millstone. How to avoid the weighty shadow cast upon him by his illustrious Genoese namesake? Mateo Colombo was condemned to parody, and to the easy mockery of his detractors.

His work was certainly no less extraordinary than that of the other Colombo. He too discovered his America, he too had his share of both glory and unhappiness. And he also knew how to be cruel. Mateo Colombo, when the time came to establish his colonia, his colony, had no more scruples or pity than Christopher. The shaft of his banner would not be sunk into the warm sands of the Tropics, but into the core of the newly discovered land which he had claimed for himself: the female body.

A prisoner in his own cell, Mateo Colombo had just finished writing the statement that he was to present to the court. The echo of the last bell calling to Mass was still reverberating when he saw, outside his window, a figure with his back to the light.

"May I be of assistance?" murmured the figure.

Mateo Colombo, who, under orders of the court, had been forced to take a vow of silence, cautiously declined to speak but drew a little nearer. Only then could he make out who it was standing against the sun: his friend, Messere Vittorio.

"Are you mad, do you wish to end up in jail like myself?" he whispered and with an inhospitable gesture urged him to leave at once.

Messere Vittorio put a hand through the bars of the window and offered his friend a skin of goat's milk and a sackful of bread. With annoyance, as if against his will, Mateo Colombo took both. He was certainly hungry. As the furtive visitor turned to go back to the chapel, he heard the prisoner whisper:

"Can you send a letter for me, by messenger, to Florence?"

Messere Vittorio hesitated.

"You could have asked for something easier. You know how zealously the dean rifles through all correspondence . . ." Just then, both men saw Alessandro de Legnano standing at the chapel door, making certain that everybody was attending Mass.

"Fine, give me the letter. Now I must go," said Messere Vittorio urgently, reaching with his hand between the bars.

"I have not written it yet. If you could come by after Mass . . ."

Then the dean spotted Messere Vittorio under the archway.

"What are you doing there?" he asked, arms akimbo, his frown deeper than usual.

Messere Vittorio bent to pull at the laces of his sandal, then walked toward the chapel.

"Were you speaking to your shoe?"

Messere Vittorio merely blushed and grinned stupidly.

Mateo Colombo had only the short duration of the Mass to write his letter.

After checking that there was no one outside the chapel, he again pulled out his notebook, which he kept hidden under the small desk, since he had been forbidden to communicate with anyone, took a goose's quill, dipped it in the inkwell and, on the last page, set himself to work. The vow of silence imposed by the tribunal was not an arbitrary punishment; it had a very specific objective: to prevent his satanic discovery from spreading like seeds in the wind. For that reason, he had been forbidden to write. There was not much time left. Once again he made sure that there was no one near. Then he began:
My lady,

My soul is struggling in an abyss of uncertainty, oppressed by the bitterness of him who, having sworn secrecy in the Name of the Lord, gives offense to the Holy Name when, unjustly, one tiny part of His Divine Creation is kept hidden from our eyes. It is therefore in the Name of God, my beloved Inés, that I have decided to break the vows of silence imposed upon me by the dean of the University of Padua and by the Doctors of the Church. I fear death less than I fear silence, even though, in my case, I am condemned both to one and to the other. When this letter reaches you in Florence, I will no longer be alive. I have spent the night writing out the statement that tomorrow I am to present to the court over which Cardinal Caraffa will preside. And yet, I know full well that before I pronounce a single word in my defense, the sentence will have long been decided. I know that no other fate awaits me but the fire at the stake. If I felt that you might be successful in interceding for my life in this mockery of a trial, undoubtedly I would ask you to do so: many things have I asked of you; one more will not matter. But I also know that my fate is cast. All I ask from you now is that you hear me out. That is all.

You may wonder perhaps why I have decided to reveal my secret to you alone. It happens that, even though you did not know it, you were the single source of the discoveries that were granted to me. All depends on you now. Should you consider that I am committing a sacrilege by speaking out when I have sworn to keep silent, stop reading now and throw these papers into the flames. If, however, I still deserve some credit in your eyes and you decide to read on, I pray you, in the Name of God Himself, to keep the secret.
Before proceeding with the letter, Mateo Colombo sat in doubt for a few moments. Time grew short. Mass would be half over. He rubbed his eyes, turned in his chair and, before continuing, asked himself whether this was not all madness.

This was the beginning of the tragedy. Had he known that what he was about to reveal to Inés de Torremolinos would result in something worse than either death or silence, he would not have written one more word. As it was, he once again dipped the quill in the inkwell.

He had just finished his letter when he saw that the congregation had begun to leave the chapel.

Mateo Colombo tore the page from the notebook and folded it in such a way that only the blank side remained visible. The students were the first to emerge and, from the center of the courtyard, they began to move in small groups toward the classrooms. Last of all, Messere Vittorio appeared and, by his side, Alessandro de Legnano. Messere Vittorio stopped in the atrium and with a nod of his head, bid the dean farewell. Mateo Colombo, through the window of his cell, saw the dean standing next to his friend and showing no inclination to move. He saw that the dean, leaning now against a column, had begun one of his usual interrogations. He wasn't able to hear what they were saying, but the anatomist was quite familiar with Alessandro de Legnano's inquisitorial gestures, scowling, with his hands on his hips.

The anatomist had lost all hope of giving his friend the letter, when suddenly the dean walked away toward his own rooms. Messere Vittorio stayed on a while longer and, when he saw that there was no one left in the courtyard or skulking under the archway, he walked quickly and directly up to the anatomist's window. Mateo Colombo threw his letter through the bars. Messere Vittorio nudged the letter with his foot until it seemed far enough, then he bent over and placed it between the heel and the sole of his sandal. At that very moment, Alessandro de Legnano reappeared at the far end of the archway.

"It seems to be time for you to replace your footwear," said the dean. And before Messere Vittorio was able to think of an answer, Alessandro de Legnano added:

"I will see you in the workshop." He spun round on his heels and returned the way he had come.

Messere Vittorio wished the dean dead; a wish that, in a certain sense, he would one day see granted.

1. Knut Haeger, The Illustrated History of Surgery, H. Starke, 1989.

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Excerpted from The Anatomist by Federico Andahazi. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.