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The anatomy of touch: nature, knowledge and technologies of touch in the Renaissance

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In the last few decades, promising new approaches to the study of the senses and to the body have shed new light on how people in the past experienced their lives, as much as on the ways in which knowledge about self and the world was being shaped, negotiated and transformed. Although all the senses could contribute to these discussions, scholars have predominantly focused on sight and visual cultures, leaving other potentially fruitful avenues unexplored. Touch, especially, has received little attention in historical research, where it has been reduced to a history of sexuality, leaving its other dimensions unexamined. Yet this sense, considered the defining sense of human nature, raises important questions regarding the part played by the lower senses in knowledge production, as well as in society and culture at large.

Sources concerning Renaissance anatomy provide a significant lens through which to examine the part played by touch in the early modern study of Nature, as evidenced by the practice of dissections, which engaged the body, the skin and the hand of the anatomists, in their attempt to unveil the truths hidden inside the body. Using theoretical writings (anatomical textbooks) as well as sources more closely linked to daily practices (such as university notes of medical students), this paper seeks to explore the technologies of touch that were displayed in 16th-century anatomical practices and discourses, with the aim of highlighting the epistemological value of the sense of touch in early modern inquiries about Nature and the human body.

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