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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 25  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 34-36

The coronary tree of the anatomical machines of the prince of sansevero: The reality of a legend

1 Department of Heart and Great Vessels, La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy
2 Hemodinamic and ICU Division, San Luca Hospital, Vallo della Lucania, Salerno, Italy
3 Department of Internal Medicine, II University of Naples, Naples, Italy
4 Three Dimensional and Transesophageal Echocardiographic Laboratory, Cardiology Division, San Gennaro Hospital, Naples, Italy

Date of Web Publication9-Jun-2015

Correspondence Address:
Domenico Galzerano
via Francesco Giordani 42, 80122, Napoli
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2211-4122.158431

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During the 18 th century in Naples, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, gave definitive form to the family chapel, the so-called "Cappella San Severo". The chapel houses not only extraordinarily beautiful and spectacularly detailed statues but also two human skeletons known as anatomical machines ("Macchine Anatomiche") in the basement. These two skeletons, a man and a pregnant woman, are entirely surrounded by their own circulatory system, just as they were suddenly and mysteriously, fixed. Legend, believed as truth until few years ago, tells that Prince Raimondo had prepared and injected an unknown embalming substance in their blood vessels convicting them to eternal fixity. Most recent investigations, however, demonstrated that while the bones are authentic, the blood vessels are actually an extraordinary artifact, even though the perfect reproduction of the coronary vascular tree, including congenital malformations in detail, raises some doubts about the technique used by the Prince. The dreadful aspect of these two skeletons appears to be in strident contrast with the classic beauty of the statues, which glorifies and celebrates the ideal of morphology. Conversely, the two "Anatomical Machines", protagonists of legends and superstitions since centuries, represent a marvelous example of science and art.

Keywords: Anatomical machines of prince of sansevero, coronary tree, cardiovascular anatomy

How to cite this article:
Michele SD, Mirabelli F, Gregorio G, Lama D, Paolisso G, Galzerano D. The coronary tree of the anatomical machines of the prince of sansevero: The reality of a legend. J Cardiovasc Echography 2015;25:34-6

How to cite this URL:
Michele SD, Mirabelli F, Gregorio G, Lama D, Paolisso G, Galzerano D. The coronary tree of the anatomical machines of the prince of sansevero: The reality of a legend. J Cardiovasc Echography [serial online] 2015 [cited 2021 Mar 6];25:34-6. Available from: https://www.jcecho.org/text.asp?2015/25/1/34/158431

Dear Editor,

I am honored to comment and describe in detail some new insights on an our recent investigation [1] regarding the coronary tree of two artworks hosted in The "Cappella Sansevero", an extraordinary Neapolitan 18 th century chapel; it hosts two skeletons in the crypt of the church - A man and a pregnant woman surrounded by their own circulatory system [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Anatomical machines of the Raimondo di Sangro, the Prince of Sansevero (1710-1771), on display at the Museo Capella Sansevero in Naples, are two anatomical models, of a man and a woman, depicting the human circulatory system: panel a: man, panel b: woman

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Some legends dating back to several centuries [2] claim that Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of Sansevero, injected a mysterious embalming substance into two of his servants in order to fix, permanently and perfectly, their blood flow and entire circulatory system. On the other hand, legends report that while attempting to heal Luigi Sanseverino, Prince of Bisignano, affected by an untreatable disease, Prince Raimondo realized that the color of his patient's skin was similar to that of the drugs he was using to treat him. He realized that this was due to the flow of the chemicals in the bloodstream and therefore commissioned Giuseppe Salerno, one of the most reputed doctors of the Kingdom, for the construction of the Anatomical Machines. The result was the first realistic reproduction of the entire circulatory system of an adult man and of a pregnant woman with her fetus.

Curious and interested from a cardiologic point of view, we addressed this project in order to raise light upon about the real nature of the anatomical machines and to investigate on the technique used for reproducing the circulatory system in the anatomical machines. Our project addresses this controversy by combining visual anatomic examination of the heart and great vessels and of the coronary tree, historic research and knowledge of anatomy of circulatory system in different centuries. Assuming as background that the large vessels were well-known in the 18 th century [3] and easily reproducible, while the coronary artery district was not well-known in the 18 th Century and difficult to reproduce, in order to verify the two theories, we hypothesize that a perfect reproduction of the coronary tree should be very difficult to construct and suitable for injection of substance in the vessels.

We have detected several cardiovascular anomalies in the Anatomical Machines. Concerning the large vessels, many anomalies are present; the woman presents some anomalies that are also compatible with life into adulthood (abnormalities of the supraaortic vessels and abnormal length of the ascending aorta), but also atresia of the pulmonary arteries which is almost sure not compatible with adult survival and pregnancy. Minor anomalies could have been introduced by mistake or could be faithful reproductions of the cardiac vessels, while pulmonary atresia is unlikely to be a reproduction and has probably been introduced by mistake. Dealing with the coronary tree, this is reproduced in great detail both in the woman, in whom it is normal, and in the man, in whom it is present as a congenital anomaly compatible with life (single origin of the coronary arteries) [Figure 2]. Furthermore, on the heart, a little hole is present that could represent the outcome of a scar caused by a myocardial infarction, which is more frequent in congenital coronary anomalies.
Figure 2: Anatomical machines: Man; particular of the heart and coronary arteries; white arrow: Single emergency of coronary artery; yellow arrow: Right coronary artery; green arrow: left anterior descending artery; AO = Aorta; PA = Pulmonary

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It has been previously demonstrated that some districts of the circulatory system of the Anatomical Machines are made of iron wire and a special type of wax. [4] Otherwise, it is not definitively demonstrated that the entire cardiovascular system has been made by using colored wax; in fact, vessels from the two models were sampled in different areas but not in all regions of the cardiovascular system. Therefore, we cannot exclude the use of different techniques in preparing the different circulatory districts of the anatomical machines. Furthermore, it is amazing that the coronary district portion has been reproduced with more detail. In fact, we came upon a paradoxical discovery: anomalies not compatible with life in the large vessels and a perfect reproduction including of anomalies compatible with life of the coronary tree. The injection of substance for studying the vessels is a technique that had not been used before the 19 th century; however, based on our findings, we cannot exclude that Prince Raimondo and his anatomist assistant, Salerno, injected, at least in some districts, liquid wax or other substances, thus reproducing the vascular system with further precision and details, including three-dimensional effects.

To resolve our doubts, sampling and biochemical analysis in all regions should be carried out.

In addition, it is important to frame the anatomical machine in complex allegorical scheme designed by Prince Raimondo for this votive mausoleum.

Within this context the "Anatomical Machines," initially - and not by chance - are placed in a room called "of the phoenix," shine out for their stillness reached via a mysterious alchemic procedure that isolated bones and blood vessels and forced them into everlasting immobility.

  Conclusion Top

The Sansevero Chapel is an extraordinary place of art and of science in the Neapolitan-18 th century setting. This location has been famous, till today and possibly excessively, for its fascinating mysteries, myths, and legends about the "Dark Prince," its symbolism and for the striking "Anatomical machines" with similar legends. The most recent scientific findings even though gave light to the real nature of the "Anatomical machines" on the other side raise some doubts about the techniques used, particularly for the great detail of the coronary tree without undermining their appeal, which remains immutable.

  Acknowledgments Top

We would like to thank Fabrizio Masucci, president of Museo Cappella Sansevero, Michele Tedesco for kindly reviewing the manuscript and Marianna Russo for her technical assistance.

  References Top

Della Monica M1, Galzerano D, Di Michele S, Acquaviva F, Gregorio G, Lonardo F, et al. Science, art, and mistery in the statues and in the anatomical machines of the prince of sansevero: The masterpieces of the "Sansevero Chapel". Am J Med Genet A 2013;161A:2920-9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Piedimonte AE. Raimondo di Sangro principe di Sansevero. La vita, le invenzioni, le opere, i libri, le leggende, i misteri, la Cappella. Napoli: Intramoenia., 2010.  Back to cited text no. 2
Bartholomeio Eustachii: Tabulae Anatomicae; R&G Westenios , Amstelaedami, MDCCXXII.  Back to cited text no. 3
Peters R, Dacome L. 2008. Fabricating the body: The anatomical machines of the Prince of Sansevero. In: Greene V, editor. Objects specialty group postprints. Vol. 14. Washington: Objects specialty group of the AIC. 2007. p. 161-77.  Back to cited text no. 4


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


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