[ people - april 05 ]
Julio Cesare Aranzio was described as a "dull pupil" of Vesalius but despite this ignominious epitaph he will always be remembered as the first man to describe the hippocampus - that horseshoe-shaped lobe of the brain where memories are believed to be formed and passed on to the cortex for further consolidation. Aranzio’s original Latin monograph is a peculiarly muddled piece of writing. After reading it one can only conclude that he was distracted during its composition by affairs outside of the dissection room in the medical school of Padua where he worked his irregular hours. For more than four hundred years, scholars have been baffled by his description of this simple uniform structure. In 1923 Lewis summarized the confusion by saying that it is unclear whether Aranzio was trying to describe a bottle nose dolphin, a silkworm, a coiled caterpillar, a sea horse or a dragon . To understand the fragmented and disorganised nature of that monograph it is necessary to turn to Aranzio's own life.
He was born in 1537 into a family of shoemakers. His childhood was frugal but free from hardship. He never went without food and in his time away from the family workshop he was encouraged to buy and read books. Only in later years did Aranzio's father come to recognise this as grave foolishness on his part.
He was an absent-minded boy, given to bouts of sullenness and occasional bursts of anger which were directed at no one in particular. He had an average skill at the family trade and his mediocrity set him apart from his brothers who were acclaimed as the finest shoemakers in the city. The family were justifiably proud of their fame. In a city of artisans like Padua every skill was given due credit. Trades had not yet been divided into higher and lower art forms. In the 16th century a good pair of shoes was an asset to any man.
For many years Aranzio worked in quiet obscurity, uncertain of his fate or his purpose, and as his adolescence drew to a close he was driven to depression and despair by the pointlessness of his life. He did not know what his true profession was and the more he tried to align himself to that lost star the more frustrated he became.
Then one afternoon in August, 1563, he bought a copy of Vesalius' compendium of anatomy for 15 florins at Levi’s Bookstore in the Jewish quarter of Padua. Its title was De humani corporis fabrica [On the Fabric of the Human Body] . A masterpiece of Renaissance printing and anatomy, it was finished in 1542 and published in Basel in 1543 by the press of Joannes Oporinus. Aranzio had heard much about the nascent art of anatomy and in the local tavern he had witnessed numerous heated arguments in which pious men pitted themselves against liberals who advocated the supremacy of science over religion. Aranzio listened quietly to these debates but never ventured an opinion in either direction.
He read his new book with great interest. The drawings of flesh sliced open like prime cuts of meat sparked a strange fascination in the boy. He seemed to understand its value without being able to articulate the reasons for his conviction. He grasped something which could not be described. The corpses laid out in infinite stages of dissection seemed to him an answer in itself. It comforted him somehow to think of his fellow citizens as lumps of flesh with muscles and veins in the proscribed locations. As he poured over the illustrations all thoughts of shoemaking dissolved in a forgotten recess of his brain. The woodcuts seemed to be addressing his own life. They pointed to the stupidity of all professions and beliefs. Even his preoccupation with the daughter of the old man who owner the apothecary on his street faded before his new obsession. He had been writing letters to her for two years now without once having spoken to her. From time to time he would leave the house with two or three letters in his pocket only to return hours later with the same letters in a different pocket. But his diligence in writing to the girl began to wane rapidly.
On 13 of April 1564 Aranzio knocked on Professor Andreas Vesalius' door in the medical school of Padua. We know this date from the diary of Vesalius which now resides in the museum of the medical school.
Aranzio immediately recognised the professor's face from the portrait on the first page of the anatomical treatise he had bought nine months before. Vesalius was in an interminable middle age. He had been on the verge of getting old for a good decade now but his monastic life within the university coupled with his daily meditations on the corpses of his fellow townsmen had given him a prolonged stay of youth that seemed unlikely to come to an end. His face was as rough and supple as a freshly tilled field and his eyes were neither frightening nor intimidating. He seemed to be perplexed by Aranzio’s presence. Clearly he did not receive many visitors. He sat down at his desk and waited for Aranzio to speak.
"I have read your book," Aranzio stuttered. "I would like to work with you." He was nervous but he spoke without any desire to impress the man. However hopeless the prospect of success might be, at least he would be happy that he had stated his case simply. He wanted to tell him about the thoughts that had occurred to him while he was reading the book but he had no way of expressing these things.
"Alright," Vesalius answered, "if you want to work, work today. I am dissecting a body in the theatre at three o’clock. You should be there five minutes before the hour."
Aranzio was startled. He could not believe it. He had expected to be shown to the door with a polite smile and that would be it, it would be over. It had never occurred to him that he would be accepted and now he was terrified at the prospect of doing what he had dreamed of doing for nine months. He was afraid to say anything more for fear that he would break the spell, so he stood up, thanked the professor and left.
Not knowing where to go he walked until he came to the quadrangle where he sat on a bench. He watched the reflections of sunlight in the old pond. They danced across the stone body of Ariadne who stood in the centre surrounded by water. It was an odd statue. The girl had the wings of a swan and she balanced a large dish on her head. The mirrored light swayed back and forth across her body. The flashes of light shining on the stone gave it an unnerving life-like presence. He was sure that she was waiting for him to avert his gaze so that she could step off the plinth and make her way to the centre of the city where she would find a carriage to Genova and from there she would sail at last to Athens where she had longed to go ever since she was first chiselled into life a hundred years ago.
He was woken by the ringing of the bell in the campanile. As he shook the sleep from his brain he realised that he was late. He stood up and left the quiet quadrangle reluctantly. As he stumbled down the corridors he thought how strange it was for him to have an appointment to keep, how strange to have to keep track of the hours. He yawned. He always yawned when he was nervous.
At the door of the theatre he met three other medical students. They gave him a cursory glance and continued their conversation.
Vesalius plodded down the corridor at two minutes to the hour and unlocked the door of the theatre with a large bronze key. Solemnly he entered the dark interior and lit the lamps at the far end of the theatre. This slow ritual lent him the air of a sacristan on his dawn rounds at the Basilica del Santo. The body on the mortuary slab revealed itself slowly in the pale yellow light. It its lifelessness it looked like a wax effigy. Aranzio was excited by the sight of it.
Vesalius got to work quickly, mumbling orders to whoever was nearest. He did not pay any attention to his students. They merely provided him with extra hands.
Not long after the bell of the campanile had struck six o’clock the dissection came to an end. As the other students were leaving the theatre Vesalius approached Aranzio.
"Tomorrow I want you to dissect this," he said, pointing to a human brain that was resting under a bell jar. Looking at it Aranzio could think of nothing else but Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist to her father.
"Choose whatever sections you please," Vesalius continued, "I only insist that you write a detailed account of everything you find. I will pay you for your work or else you can have rooms here with meals included. It is your choice."
Aranzio took the rooms.
That evening when he told his father about his new job he was thrown out of the house under a hail of curses. Books were thrown out of the window of his upstairs bedroom and he grabbed as many as he could before running down the street with the key to his new room in his pocket. It was his final break from everything he had known before. Whatever happened he would not be able to able to return. He had little faith in anything now except failure.
As the warden of the medical school showed him to his room he did not feel the relief of a new life unfolding before him. Instead he felt that he had left it too late.
In the late hours he sat at his desk reading certain passages from Book IV of the fabrica relating to the brain and the nervous system. The room was warm. The summer ebbed and flowed through the dark streets of Padua. The heat of the day lingered like the residue of a magnet, making the air heavy and difficult to breath. A dream-like state of paralysis lingered over every man and woman in the city and the scent of cherry blossoms filled each mind with forgetfulness. The thoughts that came to Aranzio were of a timeless and foolish nature. The streets pulsed with cicadas and the moon that hung over the gold cupola of the Basilica del Santo seemed to be tired of remembering all the turnings and inversions of its past. On the night that Christ was hanging from the cross, via Carlotta Flocca lay still with gaslight and a single dog infested with flees slept on the warm cobbles. On the morning when Lorenzo da Medici died, the fountain on via Genova was a perfect liquid mirror and a cat walked the tightrope of its circumference with one eye on the moon and another on the curving lip of granite. On the afternoon that the archduke was shot in Sarajevo, the row of linden trees on via Amico sighed gently in the anonymous heat, the leaves were an amazing shade of dark blue that afternoon and the deep foliage had the texture of water.
These thoughts plagued Aranzio with an uncomfortable vividness. He wished he could concentrate on the words before him but the sentences drifted off into the air like smoke and he followed their curling path with heavy eyes. It was not long before he was thinking of the face of Katarina Leopardi, the girl he had written one hundred and twenty-two letters to over the past three years. These letters may also be seen in the museum of the medical school in Padua.
Her brown eyes were not those of a single girl but the eyes of thousands of women. In them he saw an army marching towards a border, a king dying in his sleep and a boat leaving harbour, arching out over the bay on its way to Pireus or Thessalonika. In them he saw the migrations of countless generations, the resignation of every mother and the mundane grief of every man who renounces his faith in the world. In them, the impossibility of being one person startled him. He read the history of those eyes as if it had been handed down to him in the form of a single infinite book. As he read slowly he could hear the sounds of the delicate words echoing in his brain but as soon as he had finished each perfect sentence it was forgotten.
He woke late the next morning heavy with the dreams of many men. He felt vaguely burdened as if countless strangers had told them their secrets and then threatened to kill him if he revealed their stories to anyone else.
At the dissection table the knife gleamed with the watery fluid of the brain. He sliced away tissue, carefully noting the shape of the underlying structures. Towards midnight he came across a beautiful horseshoe shaped lobe close to the cerebellum. He noted its location and wrote down his impressions without considering their meaning or reason. His thoughts flowed freely, unchecked by scientific rigour. Words dripped from the black nib of the quill. A bottle nosed dolphin, a silkworm, a seahorse - endless creatures invaded his vision and around all of these, like an observer of a glass case in a museum, was the thought and body of Katarina Leopardi. He put his quill down and left the room. After a solitary meal he fell asleep in the quadrangle but this time it was a single dream that plagued him. It was a dream that threatened to escape the confines of his sleeping mind.
Four hundred and forty years later I begin my thesis with the sentence "Julio Cesare Aranzio first discovered the hippocampus in 1564." The second sentence states that “he was described as a 'dull pupil' of Andreas Vesalius." I do not think of Aranzio as I write these lines. I probably do not even believe that he once lived in Padua or that he woke in the quadrangle with my name in his head and the first sentence of my thesis bringing a smile to his face.
1 Lewis, FT (1923). 'The significance of the term hippocampus'. Journal of Comparative Neurology 35, 213-230. [Back]
2 Vesalius, A (1543). De humani corporis fabrica. Joannes Oporinus Press (Basel). [Back]