The Display of Corpses in the City of Rome

Placing corpses on display has a long history, and is not infrequently the fate of famous persons: the corporeal remains of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong, and, most recently, Hugo Chavez are all the subject of permanent display. Naturally, less well-known persons eagerly seeking immortality have also been known to attempt to preserve their bodies in unusual ways: one example is the now-famous Bentham Auto-Icon, the result of one man’s last will and testament which made provisions for the permanent display of his posthumous earthy remains.

The display of the bodies of unusual human and animal specimens following their death also has a long history: examples include Julia Pastrana, whose body was mummified and displayed by her husband following her long career as a sideshow attraction. More recently, however, are the examples of such institutions as Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, whose many locations often (and in a manner questionable to cultural sensitivities) display taxidermy specimens with congenital deformaties alongside wax replicas of famous ‘freaks’, an alternative version of the ‘preservation’ of bodies which is both legal, and acceptable to the flocks of tourists who frequent such museums. Furthermore, the extremely popular Body Worlds exhibitions are frequently referred to as a modern alternative to the freak show. Regardless of individual opinion on the ethical debate surrounding these displays, there is certainly one common, underlying theme: humans readily and eagerly observe the immortally preserved bodies of other humans, particularly when the latter is physically unusual and out-of-the-ordinary.

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The following example from an ancient Roman text describes corpses which were put on display for their unusual properties, implying that these bodies were certainly considered visually stimulating.  Their extraordinary physical form, in conjunction with their visual accessibility, created a form of permanent spectacle in a privately-owned space.

Pliny VII.16: “In the reign of Augustus, there were two persons, Posio and Secundilla by name, who were half a foot taller than him; their bodies have been preserved as objects of curiosity in the museum of the Sallustian family… We learn from Varro, that Manius Maximus and M. Tullius, members of our equestrian order, were only two cubits in height; and I have myself seen them, preserved in their coffins.” Translation John Bostock, 1855.

The Gardens of Sallust, originally owned by Julius Caesar, were transferred to Sallust in the first century BCE. The massive area was located between the Quirinal and Pincian hills, and would have been landscaped, boasting greenery, statues, and, evidently, a museum of ‘curiosities’ . According to Bostock, “The more general meaning attributed to the word “conditorium,” is “tomb” or burial-place… it is not improbable that there was a museum there of curiosities, in which these remarkable skeletons were kept.”

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