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The 17th-Century Drawings That Sparked Our Fascination with Monsters

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

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

Like most mythical monsters, the creatures in Italian physician Fortunio Liceti’s illustrations reveal 17th-century anxieties and misconceptions about reproduction and the human body. The finely-wrought, cross-hatched drawings and prints reconsider the line between human and animal. In addition to sketching fictitious figures, Liceti turned what his peers believed to be deformities into intriguing evidence of the infinite variations in human life. His renderings include siamese twins conjoined at the shoulder, a four-legged woman, headless men with spouts emerging from their stomach or back, and a variety of human-beast hybrids: a scaly, two-legged creature with a horse’s head, a furry, bipedal being with a man’s face.
Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris, 1665. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Liceti was born prematurely in a ship off the coast of Italy in 1577, while his mother was travelling to Rapallo. A rumor circulated that at birth he was so small he could fit into the palm of a hand. According to 18th-century writer Laurence Sterne, Liceti was able to survive because his father kept him in a custom device similar to a chicken incubator. He grew up to study medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna, becoming increasingly interested in biology. Throughout his lifetime, Liceti authored a number of his books, perhaps as many as one per year. His most famous work is De monstrorum causis, natura et differentiis (On the Reasons, Nature and Differences of Monsters). He published the text in 1616, then reissued the book in 1634 with his vivid illustrations. Liceti died in 1657, eight years before an Amsterdam publisher widely distributed the tome. Public interest in pygmies, merpeople, and other “monstrosities” skyrocketed, leading to the prevalence of circus freak shows.
Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris , 1665. Courtesy ofThe Public Domain Review.

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

To the contemporary eye, De monstrorum causis features what we now know are fabled characters like wolf children and centaurs. But he also included abnormalities he witnessed firsthand in his medical practice, frequently drawing conjoined twins and intersex individuals. Despite the fact that the scientist grouped people with congenital disabilities with “monsters,” he was still progressive for his time. As his peers shunned people who looked like his subjects—some believed anatomical abnormalities resulted from sin—Liceti believed they were just the result of nature, both powerful and inventive.
Perhaps a symptom of his era’s mystification about reproduction, the genitalia in Liceti’s work ranges from the expected to the otherworldly. One “monster” sports what looks like a frontally-attached tail, nearly as long as its legs. Another creature with a bald, egg-shaped head appears to have vaginal folds taking up nearly half its stomach. Liceti posited that a narrow uterus or complications with a mother’s placenta could generate some of the birth defects he observed (now referred to as “congenital disabilities”). Some scholars even credit him as the father of teratology, or the study of congenital disabilities.
Fortunio Liceti, Illustration from De Monstris, 1665. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Not all of Liceti’s scientific ideas were sound. Disagreeing with his friend Galileo, he believed that the Moon was able to retain light. Liceti also espoused the theory of “spontaneous generation,” the idea that living beings could grow from non-living matter. Scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek first observed sperm with a microscope 20 years after Liceti’s death, in 1677, and the true mechanics of reproduction—a sperm fertilizing an egg—weren’t discovered until almost 200 years later. For Liceti, ignorance led to false assumptions. Yet centuries later, artists, rather than scientists, would revisit Liceti’s work: Despite the physician’s inaccuracies, his fabulously inventive drawings evidenced an imaginative, uninhibited psyche.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.