A Portal of Death

By Elizabeth Mullen

Three skeletons surround and draw back a cover from a circular portal full of bodies and skeletons.

Frontispiece from Bernardino Genga’s Anatomia per uso et intelligenza del disengno…, 1691
National Library of Medicine #2353013R

Are you ready to walk and talk with the skeletons? It’s Halloween again. As the nights get longer and leaves turn and fall, many will spend the dark evening communing with spooks, specters and skeletons and pondering frightening images of death.

The ‘portal of death’ above is the Frontispiece from Bernardino Genga’s beautiful Anatomia per uso et intelligenza del disengno…, 1691.  In this period, title pages and frontispieces were artistic and allegorical representations of the science and art of anatomy and its association with death. They typically featured skeletons, cadavers, famous physicians or mythical figures, placed in anatomical theaters, landscapes, or classical architecture and were often heavy with symbolism. By the mid-1700s anatomists began to drop this type of fantastical frontispiece in scientific books, but they continued on in art anatomies, such as this, and books intended for general consumption.

Bernardino Genga was born in Mondolfo in the Duchy of Urbino in 1620 and died in 1690 in Rome, where he practiced surgery in the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia. He was a scholar of Classical medical texts, editing several works of Hippocrates. He also had a great interest in the preparation of anatomical specimens as well as the anatomy of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. These interests led to his work at the Accademia di Francia delle Belle Arti in Rome, where he taught anatomy to artists. Anatomia per uso et intelligenza del disegno… was published a year after his death. It consists of renderings of his anatomical preparations by the artist Charles Errard (1606–1689), director of the Accademia, and most likely engraved by François Andriot (d. 1704). Giovanni Maria Lancisi (1654–1720), the Papal physician, edited the work and provided much of the commentary. Most of the engravings deal with osteology and myology drawn from Genga’s anatomical preparations. The remainder consists of representations of antique statues viewed from different angles, including the Youth Pulling a Thorn from his Foot, the Farnese Hercules, and the Gladiator.

Perhaps you will encounter some of these figures—or other mythical or historical sorts—rambling through this October eve, drawn from the flights of human imagination and the depths of human history, and walking the earth together on this night of imagination and mischief.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Photo of Elizabeth Mullen outside in front of a building.Elizabeth A. Mullen is Manager of Web Development and Social Media in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.