Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A gladiator hiding in the stacks!

On an ordinary day in the RMIT University Library you're likely to use a textbook or an e-journal but sometimes you can discover the extraordinary. Sam Gibbard, our Metadata Standards Librarian, highlights one of the hiddens gems of our collection in this fascinating article.

Title page of book
About two months ago I was working with a colleague on some data clean-up tasks when I came upon several extremely large folio items. Looking through them, I became immediately excited by one in particular. I could tell from the paper that it was printed on that it was very old, and the illustrations within were incredible. I had to know more, so I took it to my office to investigate further. The title page revealed the following information: ”Anotomie du gladiateur combattant, applicable aux beaux arts”, written by Jean-Galbert Salvage, and printed in Paris in 1812.


The book contains extraordinary illustrations of anatomy that look absolutely incredible for when the book was produced. The detail and the exquisite quality of the etched plates really is something to behold. My curiosity was now piqued and I looked further. I discovered that we are the only library in Australia to hold a copy of this work. I also came to realise that this is perhaps one of the most valuable items held in the Library, after looking at prices of online booksellers. While this book may be valuable in a monetary sense, its artistry and story are more valuable still. After looking on Trove, I discovered an article on LibrarySearch dedicated just to this one book! “Jean-Galbert Salvage and His Anatomie du gladiateur combattant: Art and Patronage in Post-Revolutionary France” was written by Raymond Lifchez and published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 2009. As Lifchez himself proclaims at the start “This article is but one outcome of the intermittent but nevertheless stimulating and immensely enjoyable attempt to tell the Salvage story (1)”. Lifchez goes on to detail the backstory to this incredible book. Particularly inspired by the Greek statue called The Borghese Gladiator, or Fighting Warrior, Salvage “conceived the plan for a book that unites both the exact study of anatomy and its application to the progress of art (2) ”. He believed that his unique combination of surgeon, physician and artist enabled him, and him alone, “to make the necessary connections between science and art that would liberate the artist’s imagination (3) .”

Image of skeleton from the book
Image of two heads from the book

Salvage spent years trying to fund the creation of this atlas, and ultimately had to sacrifice his position as a surgeon in the military so he could complete the book saying it would be more use to society “than a low ranking surgeon could be (4) ”. Salvage experienced numerous delays, financial problems and bureaucracy over his 9-year journey to finish the work. Ultimately, it was to kill him in the end when he contracted tuberculosis from a cadaver. He also died with a large amount of debt, and his near decade-long struggle to fund the project highlights the complex and frustratingly slow system of patronage in the arts at that time.

The book is now safely housed in Special Collections at Swanston Library (SPE FOL 743.4 S182), and would welcome your eyes anytime.

Anatomical images from the book

1. LIFCHEZ, RAYMOND. "Jean-Galbert Salvage and His Anatomie Du Gladiateur Combattant: Art and Patronage in Post-Revolutionary France"  Metropolitan Museum Journal 44 (2009): 163-84.

2. ibid

3. ibid

4. ibid