Friday, June 17, 2011

On Location: The Anatomical Machines of Capella Sansevero

The setting of a novel can be one of its most captivating characters.  In the "On Location" series of Murder Lab posts, we explore settings of thrillers and welcome insight from readers and writers alike: what makes an author choose a setting for the work?  Will you pick up a book because the setting intrigues you?  Does a great story make you long to visit its location, to see it through the eyes of the characters?  Guests posts are welcome!  Please e-mail if interested.

"For the poor people from the streets near the di Sangro Chapel, the Neapolitan incarnation of Dr. Faustus made a pact with the devil, and almost became a devil himself, to master the most secret mysteries of nature."

-Benedetto Croce, Storie e Leggende Napoletane

Several years ago, a traveling scientific exhibit passed through San Diego.  The exhibit was called, simply, “Bodies.”  It featured anatomical models similar to those one would observe in a high school science class.  Except that they were real.

The bodies of the exhibit were preserved using modern plastification techniques.  One could wander through the various sections of the exhibit and observe, in situ, the entire circulatory system, the respiratory system, the reproductive systems of both males and females - even neurons.

As I stood in the basement beneath Raimondo di Sangro’s Capella Sansevero in Naples, I realized the Bodies exhibit I had seen in San Diego had precedent almost two centuries prior.  Two display cases in a small, round underground chamber held two bodies.  One was a man.  The other, a pregnant woman. 

Their entire circulatory systems were emerging from hearts that were frozen forever to their open chests.  Their skeletons stood intact, and the intricate networks of tiny veins and arteries crossing their faces reminded me instantly of the detailed netting I had just seen carved over the Disillusion statue in the chapel above.

“Oh my God,” I said, venturing closer. “Are they…real?”

“The skeletons are real,” Alyssa said. “The fetus in the woman’s womb was most definitely real, until it was stolen a number of years ago.”

“Stolen?” I asked, suddenly feeling a wave of nausea.

“The legend held that these were two of di Sangro’s servants who had angered him. The belief was that he preserved the circulatory systems by injecting the victims with mercury while they were still alive.”

“Is this part true?” I asked.

“He certainly did have an affinity for science. And he certainly also had an affinity for mercury. But how he made these, nobody knows. Chemical analyses have yielded all sorts of organic substances associated with the capillaries and veins, among them, beeswax. So it appears that these models are, um, partly real. The rest is a mystery.

“Di Sangro’s Palace was adjacent to where he built this chapel. He had a laboratory in the basement. His contemporaries documented strange noises and strange flashes of light coming from his laboratories at all hours of the night. It’s really no wonder they were afraid of him. And he moved between the labs and the outside world secretly as well – he didn’t just use the front doors. Until very recently, there existed an underground tunnel connecting those laboratories under the Palace to this chapel basement. Officially, the tunnel no longer exists.”

“And unofficially?” I asked.

“Where do you think we’re going?” Alyssa said, and she pushed aside the display case containing the pregnant female.

Adapted from an excerpt of "The Vesuvius Isotope," the first Katrina Stone novel by Kristen Elise.  

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