Among the other wonders and pleasures that early nineteenth century Vienna displayed was Angelo Soliman, or at least, what was left of him. Born in Nigeria around 1721, Soliman had been enslaved as a young child and bought by the Austrian governor of Sicily, Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz. In the service of Lobkowitz, Soliman distinguished himself as a companion and a soldier, and his fame and stature grew as he accompanied the governor on a number of military expeditions. After Lobkowitz’s death, Soliman went into the service of Prince Wenzel von Lichtenstein in Vienna. There he became a court favorite—he was fluent in six languages and was widely admired for his erudition and wit. He became a Mason in the same lodge as Haydn and Mozart.
Despite this prestige, when he died of natural causes in 1796, the Hapsburg emperor, Franz II, did not see fit to accord him the same rite of burial that any other Mason would have been granted. After Soliman’s death the emperor had him skinned, and his skin was fitted onto a wooden frame and put on display in Franz II’s “Imperial and Royal Physical Astronomical Art and Nature and Animal Cabinet.” Wonder cabinets had been around for over a century, so when Franz II opened his in 1797, he wanted something special. In life Soliman had dressed in the latest fashions and proved himself equal to the greatest minds of Europe; in death he was decked in a loincloth and headdress made of ostrich feathers, perched alongside the birds of paradise. He was the highlight of the cabinet.
“All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless,” Sarah Bowditch wrote in her taxidermy manual in 1820; “the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections. We have only some parts of man, either dried or preserved in spirits of wine, sufficiently entire to be recognized.”
Either she was unaware of Soliman or judged him to be one of those “mis-shapen hideous objects,” because the lone exception that Bowditch mentions is the work of Frederick Ruytsch, who was well known for his exotic and ground-breaking preparations—“The anatomical collection of the Museum of Natural History in Paris possesses a head…by the celebrated Ruitch [sic], a Dutch physician. It still preserves all the vivacity of its colours. The cold so far affects the liquor in which it is contained, as to hide it completely, but at the return of spring the liquor becomes clear, and we perfectly distinguish the object.” Ruytsch was in fact so famous that in 1824 the poet Giacomo Leopardi composed a operetta about him, entitled “Dialogue Between Frederick Ruytsch and His Mummies,” in which Ruytsch’s specimens come to life for a single night to explain the mysteries of death:Alone in the world, eternal, toward whom does move Every created thing, In you, Death, finds rest Our naked nature; From ancient suffering. Profound Night in our confused mind Obscures our grave thought; Towards hope, desire, the shriveled spirit Feels its strength wane; Thus from affliction and from fear is freed And the empty slow years Unbored whiles away. We lived; and as the confused memory Of a frightening ghost And of a sweating dream Wanders in the souls of infants, So in us remembrance lingers Of our lives: but far from fear Is our remembering. What were we? What was the bitter point called life? Stupendous mystery is today Life to our minds, and such As to the minds of the living Unknown death appears. As when living From it death fled, now flees From vital flame Our naked nature Not joyous but secure; For to be happy Is denied to mortals and denied the dead by Fate.
Ruytsch’s mummies, Bowditch notes, are an exception, “and since the bony part of our body is the only one which we are able to preserve entire and in its natural position,” Bowditch recommends that the best way to preserve a human is by cleaning and displaying the skull.