Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Collections of Perfection

This project, executed by Marieke Hendriksen MA MRes, aims at an analysis of how the early modern anatomical collections of Leiden University were rooted in ideals of perfection in different fields of knowledge and expertise.

Robert Zwijnenberg

Project description

The project starts from the premise that collections (institutional as well as private) generally represented and generated knowledge. It  means that collectors were continuo usly and consciously making choices as to what they should and should not include. Even more, they chose methods of preservation and ways of exhibiting, involving not only technical skills but also cultural ideas and ideals. Anatomical exhibits, in other words, were made objects. They were meant to show the anatomy of the body (according to contemporary physiological ideas), but were at the same time portraits of their makers, of their image of the ideal body and of the intimate experience of their own body. For the Leiden anatomists Rau, Albinus, Van Doeveren, Bonn and Brugmans perfection was at the core of their decisions. Aesthetically, the objects had to be presented according to fixed proportions, perspectives and other aesthetic conventions. Technologically and scientifically, the anatomical collections were aimed at showing ever more perfect methods of revealing and preserving nature. Ethically, the collections functioned like mirrors and helped in the educational and therefore ethical perfectibility of man. There was even a theological meaning of perfection as some collectors sought to represent the perfect order of creation. Also the exhibition of so called ‘monsters’, tumours and other malformations were meant to enhance (ex-negativo) the image of the perfect body. 

While considerations of perfection were central to anatomical preparations and their collections, the precise content of the perfection to be realised was contended ground. In other words, the meaning of perfection was different according to cultural settings and technological possibilities. For this reason, research into the ‘materialisation’ of perfection in anatomical collections is at the same time an analysis of perfection as a conceptual tool informing the way artefacts were preserved and exhibited.             

Although historians of medicine have to some extent discussed the notion of perfection in the early modern Leiden cabinets, little attention has been paid to the construction of the homo perfectus in a broader cultural and academic context. As a result, much of the work that has been done on the Leiden early modern collections is confined to the history of medical ideas, mostly judged by modern medical criteria. The project at hand seeks to resolve the shortcoming through adopting an interdisciplinary approach. Analysing contemporary medicine and anatomy in relation to philosophy, theology and the arts will allow the researcher to understand how the early modern (mostly eighteenth-century) anatomical cabinets act as ‘fluid’ bodies of knowledge that are a result of culturally and historically determined ideals of (aesthetic, religious, ethical and scientific) perfection.             

Expected results

The project will not only result in a better understanding of ideals of perfection, it will also enhance our understanding of the contemporary quest for the perfect body as a cultural phenomenon. It discloses the origin of many contemporary (and public) images of the perfect body. The project Collections of Perfection, in short, shows that the quest for the perfection of man is no newcomer to our culture and can therefore historically inform the current debate on the perfectibility of the human body.

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