The Sarcophagus of the Via Appia, Rome, 1485

Via Apia

Considering the rigorous beliefs of science, the quality of a specimen should be described according to two criteria – the visual proximity to the original and the actual quantity of bodily matter preserved as object. These criteria are fulfilled to perfection in the specimens of Dr. Hagens who developed (not invented) the method of plastination and perfected this process to astonishing perfection.

Despite this my favourite specimen is something completely different. It is rather a myth, which not only seemingly, but most likely is grounded in reality.

In April 1485 a sensational, over one-thousand-years-old find was made at the Via Appia in Rome. A sarcophagus that contained an almost undecayed corpse of a young woman was discovered. After the corpse had, on a daily basis and offending the church, allegedly been gazed at in amazement by over 20 000 curious people, it was buried in an unknown location in a nocturnal action, probably near the Porta Pincia. Only thanks to a surviving letter containing a sketch has this exciting tale not been forgotten. Also, this narration did not become one of those superficial and numerous tales describing confrontations with human bodies that have been preserved for hundreds of years.

For those who do not know the letter, here is its content:

“Bartolomeo Fonte is greeting his friend Francesco Sasseti… You have asked me for a more detailed account of the body that was discovered at the Via Appia. I hope that my pen manages to describe the beauty and grace of this female. If not the whole of Rome would be my witness, this note would appear to be unbelievable… At the bottom of the vault there was a marble sarcophagus containing a human body. This body was placed face down and covered with two fingers’ breadth of fragrant ointments. When the workers, starting with the head, were removing the ointment they were faced with the head of a girl with features so immaculate, as if this person had just been buried that same day. Her long black hair was plaited into a woman’s coiffure and clinging firmly to the head. It was covered by a net made out of silk and gold. The auricles were small, the forehead particularly delicate, the eyes framed by dark eyelashes and standing out by their specific form: they were only closed so much as for the white of the eyeball to shine through. Also the delicate form of the nasal wings had been preserved, and this part of the body was so soft that it retreated when touching it with a finger. The slightly opened lips were red, the teeth small and white, the tongue of a scarlet colour. Throat, cheeks and neck were literally breathing life. The arms rested nonchalantly and were preserved so well that one could move them into all directions… The hands were spread and the beautiful, long fingers were equipped with glossy fingernails. Only breasts, belly and vulva were displaced to the side. But back, buttocks and waist have kept their gorgeous form. Likewise the thighs and legs of the girl, which might have been even more beautiful than the face in their lifetime.

In short it was an exceptionally beautiful woman from the times when Rome still had been at the height of its power…”.

My favourite specimen therefore is only existing – according to the spirit of the renaissance – in written form. This form, however, is so vivid that it is not only replacing the visual effect but also even surpasses it. I have an exact image of beauty before my very eyes and I do not mind that the readers of this account will come up with their own images of this woman’s body that has been preserved for eternity according to their personal ideals of beauty.

Image and letter: The Warburg Institute, University of London

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When the workers ... were removing the ointment they were faced with the head of a girl with features so immaculate, as if this person had just been buried that same day.