Votive bust of a young man. Etruscan, 3rd–2nd century BCE. Terracotta. 26 3/4 x 12 9/16 in. (68 x 32 cm). Musée du Louvre, MNE 1341© Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN–Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier / Art Resource, NY.

From the Exhibition:
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place

The boy stares out at us placidly, seemingly unaware of the view we have of his internal organs. This ought not to come as a surprise, since the head and body appear to have been crafted separately and then attached to each other. Close observation of the neck reveals a sharp division between them, apparently masked in antiquity by the addition of a very fine clay slip that seems to have covered the entire surface of the sculpture. This is not to say, however, that the head and body were not originally destined to go together. Both came from a mold, but the body was likely altered by the addition of clay worked by hand to achieve the personalized anatomical result we have before us.1

The garment that the youth wears covers his body up to the neck; his right arm is held in a sling within the folds, a well-established sculptural formula to demonstrate the restraint and modesty befitting a public figure. Yet below his right hand a mandorla-shaped window into the upper body of the boy has been opened, his innards revealed to prying eyes. Crowded within the center of his torso are representations of lungs, heart, esophagus, and stomach.

The medical minds of post-Enlightenment Europe have long been fascinated by the few examples of anatomical votives like this that seem to document an interest in the internal anatomy of the human body nearly two millennia before the drawings of Leonardo. It is thus no surprise that the previous owner of the object, Pierre Decouflé, was a physician.2 Yet the “dissected” figure seems to resist a rational or scientific approach. We cannot help seeing the upper portions of the lungs, curved elegantly backward like a bird’s neck or the writhing ball of serpentine shapes that seems to inhabit the area of the small intestine, as a fantastical alternative to the illustrations in modern medical textbooks. The enlivened image of the youth’s viscera reflects the sense of uncertainty in the ancient world about the inside of the body and the experience of inexplicable pain emanating from it.

This votive figure would have been displayed in an ancient sanctuary, somewhere within the Etruscan cultural zone of Central Italy, where it must have been commissioned at the request of the dedicator.3 It is difficult to pin down the meaning of the open body or to determine whether it has any relationship to the hypothetical existence of medical dissection of the time. The body shockingly revealed might best be read as a cry for help, a signal for the god of the ailment suffered by the patient.4

The social dimension of such an object is tantalizing. Are the restrained pose and the refusal to betray pain the result of an aristocratic education, real or claimed, on the part of the young man or his family? Does the poise shown by the youth suggest a cure, while pointing to the cause of the past harm by revealing the affected organs? Objects such as this were clearly intended to catch the eye and compel the attention of the viewer. Details picked out in paint, since worn away, might have made the internal elements of the body even more vivid. In the absence of any inscription—at least none is preserved—it is tempting to consider who the audience might have been for such a gift placed in a sanctuary. Although the impact on a human viewer would be profound, this object was principally crafted to communicate with the divine. It was made perhaps as a plea for assistance or in gratitude for an answered prayer. This extraordinary object is tangible proof of a meaningful communication between mortal and deity made almost 2,500 years ago in ancient Italy.5 As a physical object and as a relic of the life of a nameless boy, it has huge affective power in the present.

Alexander Ekserdjian, a doctoral student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, participated in associate professor Ittai Weinryb’s fall 2016 In Focus seminar Ex Voto: Agents of Faith and contributed to the exhibition catalogue Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place.

1.As is the case with other Etruscan polyvisceral votives, such as the smaller example from the fourth century BCE in the J. Paul Getty Museum (acc. no. 73.AD.83).

2.Laurent Haumesser, “The Open Man: Anatomical Votive Busts between the History of Medicine and Archaeology,” in Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future, edited by Jane Draycott and Emma-Jayne Graham (New York: Routledge, 2017), 165.

3.In the absence of an excavation record, it is hard to locate this object beyond a general attribution to the Etruscan cultural zone of Central Italy, although the Louvre’s records suggest a more precise location of Canino, Italy.

4.On the meanings of a comparable polyvisceral votive, see Jessica Hughes, “Fractured Narratives: Writing the Biography of a Votive Offering” in Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures, edited by Ittai Weinryb (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 23–48.

5.Ibid. See also Verity Platt, “Clever Devices and Cognitive Artifacts: Votive Giving in the Ancient World” in Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place, edited by Ittai Weinryb (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2018), 140–45.