Messbarger pursues ‘learned women’ of Italian Enlightenment

Rebecca Messbarger, a scholar of the 18th-century Italian Enlightenment, stands in the harsh light of a medical school examination room holding the disembodied hand of a corpse. She turns the small, delicate hand on the dissection table, noting that the young woman’s shapely nails had been well cared for in life.

Alone in her thoughts, Messbarger holds the woman’s fingers in her own, gingerly preparing to make her first incision through the cool, pale skin. She struggles to see the hand not with her own eyes, but through those of Anna Morandi Manzolini, the First Lady of anatomical dissection and wax design and Messbarger’s obsession for much of the past decade.

Rebecca Messbarger, Ph.D. (right), talks with seniors Elizabeth Germino (center), a biology and Italian major, and Shannon Petry, a political science and Italian major, all in Arts & Sciences.
Rebecca Messbarger, Ph.D. (right), talks with seniors Elizabeth Germino (center), a biology and Italian major, and Shannon Petry, a political science and Italian major, all in Arts & Sciences. “I consider myself extremely privileged to teach at Washington University for many reasons,” Messbarger says, “but chiefly because of our exceptional students, the caliber of their work, their preparation, their intellectual curiosity and their healthy world view.”

For a moment, it was as if an occult hand had swept Messbarger back in time, back to Morandi’s modest 18th-century home in a working class neighborhood of Bologna, Italy, back to the kitchen-table laboratory where Morandi is believed to have dissected as many as a thousand cadavers.

“Morandi had a keen interest in the inner workings of human eyes, ears, hands and sex organs,” says Messbarger, a member of the faculty since 1995. “She was a highly skilled anatomist and a wax modeler who relied on dissection to help her understand the body and represent it as human experience. Through her words and wax images, she helped pinpoint the anatomical designs enabling our sense of touch.”

New directions

For Messbarger, Ph.D., associate professor of Romance languages and literatures in Arts & Sciences, her gross anatomy lesson described above is just the latest in a series of academic twists and turns that have nudged her career in unforeseen and often fortuitous directions.

She took the human dissection course in 2006 during a semester-long immersion in practical anatomy and physiology at the School of Medicine. Her research is supported by a prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, a national program that helps humanities faculty pursue scholarship outside their discipline for up to three years.

With primary expertise in literary analysis, culture and gender studies and a special interest in “learned women” in 18th-century Italy, Messbarger is using the fellowship to broaden her understanding of the history of medicine in Europe and explore how medical practice shaped intellectual discourse in the Enlightenment.

As part of the fellowship, she spent a semester taking graduate courses and collaborating with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the nation’s leading programs in the history of science, medicine and technology.

This summer, she will spend two months in Florence researching 18th-century anatomical wax models at La Specola Museum. The research builds on her earlier work on Morandi and the science and art of anatomical wax design.

Messbarger’s own “enlightenment” began early, as the oldest of six children growing up in a close-knit Irish-Catholic community near Rogers Park in Chicago. Her father, a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, and her mother, a high-school history teacher, made a habit of reading to their children, an experience Messbarger credits as the springboard for her love of literature.

After high school, she joined her father at Loyola, a “faculty brat” with little direction in mind.

“My father was the best academic advisor,” she says. “He kept telling me not to declare a major, to try something else instead.”

Messbarger tried everything but math, even college theatre. “I played Kate in ‘Uncommon Woman’ and a saucy maid in ‘Angel Street,'” she says. “My dad was scandalized.”

The road to Rome

At Loyola less than a year, she announced plans to both “see the world” and “become Italian.” Breaking protocols, she arranged to spend sophomore year at Loyola’s campus in Rome, arriving with no grasp of the language.

“The experience was astonishing,” she says. “I found myself transported to this new city, this new culture, this whole new way of looking at the world.”

Deciding that college housing was isolating her from the culture, Messbarger worked with a local priest to arrange room and board in the home of an elderly man who needed help cooking — another skill in which Messbarger was far from fluent. The man’s eccentric 75-year-old sister taught Messbarger the local cuisine. Armed with an Italian dictionary, she honed her language skills while babysitting on the beach at Anzio.

(From left) Husband, Sam Fiorello; Rebecca Messbarger; daughter, Audrey, 18 months; and sons Graham, 13, and Max, 10. Audrey was adopted last August from China. Sam is chief operating officer of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

Messbarger returned to Loyola, graduating with a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in English literature in 1983. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Italian literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1986 and a doctorate, with honors, in Romance languages and literatures from the University of Chicago in 1994.

She planned to specialize in 20th-century Italian literature, but Chicago mentors told her the field was overcrowded.

“Someone suggested 18th-century Italian was wide open, and it turned out to be fabulous advice,” she says. “It’s been a perfect match for my interests.”

In 1991, she won a Fulbright to support dissertation research on the role of women in 18th-century public discourse, a project requiring long hours in the archival libraries of Rome and Venice. “There’s something incredibly powerful,” she says, “about holding a 250-year-old text in your own hands.”

The project resulted in her first book, “The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth Century Italian Public Discourse” (University of Toronto Press, 2002). Her book explores a pivotal transformation during the Enlightenment when Italian women entered centers of intellectual exchange — the academy, the university and the pages of respected publications — and there defended the integrity and rights of women.

“I was lucky to tap into this network of scholars who truly lived up to the ideals of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters,” she says. “They were incredibly generous to guide this naive American graduate student.”

The lady anatomist

Through these connections, Messbarger began hearing tantalizing stories about Morandi, this intriguing woman anatomist whose place in history had long been obscured. When fresh tidbits surfaced over breakfast in a Venice cafe, she set out in search of a Bologna museum housing Morandi’s work. Arriving late, she was directed down a deserted corridor and into a room of amazing wax models depicting human anatomy — full-sized statues and case after case of incredibly lifelike body parts.

Messbarger was hooked. After joining the faculty at WUSTL, she won a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to continue Morandi research in Bologna. With two sons, ages 3 and 5, in tow, she and her husband rented a “snug” 400-square-foot, fifth-floor walk-up overlooking the piazza and settled in for an extended stay.

Morandi, trained as an artist, began anatomical dissection and wax modeling as an assistant to her husband, who died young, leaving her to raise a family alone. She continued the business from her home, keeping a detailed 250-page journal and hosting lessons for crowds of medical students. Her intricate models earned patronage from Pope Benedict XIV, the Royal Society of London, Catherine the Great and Emperor Joseph II of Austria.

Messbarger’s forthcoming book on Morandi, “Enlightenment Bologna and the Lady Anatomist” (University of Chicago Press), reclaims from obscurity the story of a pioneering woman scientist-artist who surmounted meager origins, limited formal education and gender bias to become the most acclaimed anatomical wax modeler of Enlightenment Bologna.

A community of scholars

Modern humans’ ongoing fascination with human anatomy is evidenced by shows such as Gunther von Hagens’ “BODY WORLDS: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” However, in 18th-century Europe, the act of dissection was itself very much a spectator sport. Nobles paid large sums to observe autopsies from crowded galleries, and barber surgeons carried out their work with theatrical flair.

Messbarger helped bring this experience to the University in 2006, when she heard about a Chicago play loosely based on an autopsy depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.”

Rebecca Messbarger

Hometown: Chicago, north side

Swore: She’d never follow her parents into teaching.

Extended family: Huge. She has 40 first cousins on her father’s side alone.

Hobbies: Loves cycling, hiking in Colorado and grocery shopping at Italian stores on The Hill; taking karate lessons with her children and working toward a brown belt

Working with medical school professors Stephen Lefrak, M.D., Ira Kodner, M.D., and Walt Schalick, M.D., Ph.D., she arranged for the play’s sensational mock dissection to be staged in Wohl Student Center. The production and panel discussion drew a standing-room crowd from both campuses.

Reaching out to scholars of like interest is nothing new for Messbarger. Twelve years ago, she founded the Eighteenth-Century Studies Salon, an interdisciplinary discussion group for faculty from English, history, philosophy, music, German, Spanish, French and Italian at WUSTL and from other area universities.

Next year, Messbarger will serve as president of the University’s Association of Women Faculty. She served five years as director of undergraduate studies in Italian.

In addition to advanced Italian, she teaches courses spanning a range of literary and cultural themes and genres, including the Grand Tour, the “anti-detective” novel and Italian women writers.

“I consider myself extremely privileged to teach at Washington University for many reasons but chiefly because of our exceptional students, the caliber of their work, their preparation, their intellectual curiosity and their healthy world view,” she says. “I am well aware that I am also a student in my classroom and try to build a sense of common ground through collaboration with and among my students.”