Most societies have rules, laws or customs for the treatment of dead bodies. Burial or cremation rites assure the dying that their body will be respectfully disposed of and that they will 'rest in peace'. However, some people wish to dissect the bodies of the dead for academic or professional interest, as for example anatomists, and their wish has often been regarded as in conflict with the desire for peaceful repose. Anatomists have therefore conducted their studies clandestinely: stealing cadavers from graveyards or from the gallows, conducting their dissections in locked rooms by night, and disposing of the remains in secrecy.
Such a scene is shown in this etching, based on a rapidly executed Italian drawing now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. When in the drawings collection of the painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1820), it was considered to be by Michelangelo. The man on the right might be Michelangelo, though he is no longer thought to be the artist of this drawing. Instead, it might be drawn by Polidoro Caldara (Polidoro da Caravaggio, who lived c.1495-c.1543).
It shows two artists with measuring instruments studying the proportions of a half-dissected body. Working by night, they have stuck a big candle into the chest of the cadaver. The rapid drawing technique gives the feeling that they must get their ghoulish work done quickly before the watchman discovers them. The absurdity of the situation, in which society approved of students understanding anatomy but did not allow them to study it, was recognized from the 17th century onwards: official licenses, and subsequently laws, and (in Great Britain) regulation by the Home Office, placed anatomical dissection on a legal footing.