A four-legged woman, headless men with spouts emerging from their stomachs or backs, human beast hybrids, a male body with the head of a duck. These descriptions might sound like a dream you might have had once, or perhaps they sprang up in a feature horror film. But these are simply some of the drawings that Italian physician, Fortunio Liceti, concocted in the early 1600s. 

Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris , 1665. Courtesy of The Public Domain Review.

Upon close inspection of these finely-wrought, cross-hatched drawings and prints, one can begin to understand 17th century anxieties and misconceptions about the human body. Most specifically, the reproductive system. In addition to fictitious figures, Liceti rendered what is believed to be a variation of deformities present in human life. 

Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris, 1665. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunio Liceti was born prematurely in 1577 off the coast of Italy, where rumors began to circulate that at birth he was so small that he could fit into the palm of a hand. He grew up to study medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna where he became increasingly interested in biology. He published his work often, for a time releasing one book per year.

Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris , 1665. Courtesy ofThe Public Domain Review.

His most famous work, On the Reasons, Nature and Differences of Monsters published in 1616 chronologically documented cases of human and animal monsters from antiquity. In the culture of the time, many people considered such monsters as frightening signs of evil cursed by spiritual or supernatural entities. Liceti categorized monsters based on their potential causes, several of which he claimed were unrelated to the supernatural. It was only centuries later that historians noted that some of the documented monsters were infants with birth defects, to which many credit Liceti’s book as an early model for the study of birth defects, a field later termed teratology. 

Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris, 1665. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Centuries later, it would be surrealist artists rather than scientists who would revisit Liceti’s work with its imaginative, uninhabited psyche. 

André Masson. There Is No Finished World, 1942. Oil on canvas, 53 x 68 in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Saidie A. May, 1951.333. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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