WU professor finds praise for discoveries about Enlightenment artist

| Contributing Reporter

Professor Rebecca MessbargerRahee Nerukar | Student Life

Professor Rebecca Messbarger

What do 18th-century Italy and anatomy have in common? Quite a lot, according to Rebecca Messbarger, associate professor of romance languages at Washington University.

The book she released in 2010 on the life of one of the Age of Enlightenment’s most intriguing artists is just beginning to receive critical acclaim from others in her field.

“The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini,” explores the obscure life of sculptor Anna Morandi Manzolini in its cultural and historical contexts.

Messbarger is due to speak about her work at an international conference, “The Enlightenment Pope: Benedict XIV,” to be held in St. Louis from April 30 to May 2.

The professor said Manzolini’s life and achievements are reflective of a cultural milieu—the role of women, the place of the Church and treatment of the human form during the Enlightenment.

In her nine years of research in Bologna, Messbarger uncovered countless previously unseen documents, slowly piecing together Manzolini’s life.

“It was like reverse anatomy,” Messbarger said. “I remember finding a box of documents in a church attic and discovering her tombstone in the crypt of one of Bologna’s churches. The detective work was just fantastic.”

Messbarger added that the research process was not all about fun and adventures.

“I’ve had my share of frustrations, but the research also led me to many people who had another thread in the tapestry of this woman’s life. In fact, at an international conference in Ireland, I learned from a Russian scholar who came to me with the unpublished letters of Catherine the Great, that Catherine had held an obsessive interest in Manzolini,” she said. “The Empress had a statue of hers on her dining room table.”

Messbarger, who received her Ph.D. in Italian Literature from the University of Chicago, has been teaching at Washington University since 1996. Her research focuses on Italian Enlightenment culture, a time when experimental science and anatomy flourished and studies of science and human nature became popular.

“I stumbled across those [Manzolini’s] wax models by accident and have since been completely intrigued in this area,” Messbarger said. “18th-century Italian women achieved more institutional authority, surprisingly, than women elsewhere in Europe at the time. Even more surprising was the Church’s support for female scientists and experimental sciences. In fact, Manzolini’s patron was the pope.”

The conference at which she is slated to lecture will further discuss this historical relationship between religion and science.

“Manzolini was a very serious scientist and was particularly interested in the sensory organs,” Messbarger said. “It was a bold social statement then to be dissecting body parts like the brain!”

Messbarger’s other works include “The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth-Century Italian Public Discourse,” “The Contest for Knowledge” and “Reforming the Female Class: Il Caffè’s ‘Defense of Women.’”

Her current project centers on the Venere dei Medici, an anatomical Venus created by Clemente Susini in Florence. In her next book, “The Rebirth of Venus,” Messbarger intends to explore the “expression of a new regime” in the context of the sculpture’s creation.

Messbarger currently teaches Italian language and literature, and the FOCUS course in museum studies—“The Past Today: Theatres of Knowledge”—that includes a trip to Italy.

“Italy is my love, and it’s great to share that with my students,” she said.

Messbarger’s students noted that she is both incredibly knowledgeable in and devoted to her field of interest.

“It’s easy to see that she loves what she does; her excitement for museums and the arts made me realize where my own passions lie. Her passion for learning is contagious, and it shows in how prepared she is in the classroom,” said Emma Herman, a junior majoring in art history, “She once brought in her personal copy of a New York Times article on a museum a student had casually mentioned an interest in…she had been thinking of us as she read the New York Times at her Sunday breakfast table.”

“Her face lights up when she lectures,” junior Anna Roudebush added.

Messbarger said what she enjoys most is getting the opportunity to continue to explore her interests and share them with her classes.

“The life of a student—always learning and gathering knowledge—is the best,” she said.

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