Experimental science and the pope

WUSTL to be part of international conference exploring 18th-century papacy of Benedict XIV

In the 18th century, anatomists rejected abstract theories about how the human body worked, preferring instead to dissect cadavers. One obstacle, however, was the shortage of available corpses. Cultural mores at the time dictated that only unclaimed bodies of the poor and executed criminals were acceptable sources for experimental research.

It was a Catholic pope — Pope Benedict XIV — who directed parish priests to convince parishioners that donating the bodies of the deceased for medical dissection was a church-sanctioned contribution to public health.

Benedict, who was born into a noble family in Bologna, Italy, and trained in science, held no superstitions about putting cadavers to use. Having deemed that the soul had safely departed the dead, he believed the bodily remains could be treated with unbridled curiosity. He advocated for the necessary alliance of faith and the “new science.”

Benedict’s support of medical science and his many other contributions are the focus of a three-day international conference hosted by Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University and the Missouri History Museum.

Pope Benedict XIV (Credit: Courtesy photo)

For the first time in the United States, “The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV (1675-1758)” will bring together eminent scholars who are experts in this historic figure’s lifework and 18-year papacy. The interdisciplinary conference takes place April 30-May 2 on the campuses of all three sponsoring institutions.

The Age of Enlightenment was a cultural movement in the 18th century when intellectuals advocated for the use of “reason” to reform society and advance knowledge.

Benedict’s most important theological work, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione, still regulates the process of beatification and canonization today. Due, in part, to his exceptional patronage, Bologna’s Institute of Sciences attained international distinction. There, he established the first Anatomical Museum in Italy after commissioning eight life-size wax figures based on human autopsies.

Benedict also was a vigorous supporter of one of science’s newest practitioners: women. He was the prime benefactor of anatomist and sculptor Anna Morandi Manzolini, who performed thousands of dissections in her home for the purpose of creating precise wax replicas.

Morandi’s story remained largely untold for more than two centuries until Rebecca Messbarger, PhD, associate professor of Italian in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL Washington University, uncovered original documents. One of the symposium’s principal organizers, Messbarger is the author of The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini, which focuses, in part, on Benedict’s patronage of Morandi and other scientific women of the age.

Benedict commissioned life-size wax figures based on autopsies. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Messbarger became fascinated with Morandi as she was writing her first book on distinguished women in the Italian Enlightenment. It was through this research that she discovered the critical role Benedict played as well.

During his tenure, Benedict advanced experimental and medical science, women’s authority in academic institutions, urbanism, museology and the arts and culture to a remarkable degree.

One of the symposium’s chief goals is to help integrate Benedict’s accomplishments into the broader stream of research on the European Enlightenment.

General themes of the conference include: the question of the compatibility of faith and science; women’s place in the realm of sanctity and the public sphere; the mission of the Church in the New World; church doctrine and liturgical reforms; and papal patronage of the arts.

In addition to Messbarger, principal organizers are Philip Gavitt, PhD, associate professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, specializing in social, cultural and intellectual history of the late medieval and early modern Italy; and Christopher Johns, PhD, professor of art history at Vanderbilt University and author of critical histories of papal art patronage in Italy, including a forthcoming book on Benedict’s patronage of Roman art and architecture.

For more information or to register for the conference, visit http://rll.wustl.edu/enlightenmentpope.

http://youtu.be/_XtuCcbf4c0The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV