Mascagni, Paolo

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(b. Pomarance, Volterra, Italy, 25 January 1755; d. Florence, Italy, 19 October 1815),


Mascagni, whom Lalande included among the learned men of Siena, graduated at the age of twenty and, four years later was appointed professor. At that time the Academy of Sciences of Paris proposed to “determine and demonstrate the system of the lymphatic vessels.” The theory of the lymphatic vessels had been all but forgotten in Italy; and although Frederik Ruysch had tried to reawaken interest in the subject in Holland, Albrecht Haller, by denying the existence of lymphatic vessels in certain parts of the body, and cast doubt on the entire lymphatic system. By 1784 Mascagni was able to send the Academy the first part of a work on the lymphatic vessels illustrated with numerous plates. Although his work, Vasorum lymphaticorum historia, arrived late, he was awarded a special prize. The Historia paved the way for progress in anatomy, physiology, and clinical medicine, for 50 percent of the lymphatic vessels now known were discovered by Mascagni.

In studying the origin of the lymphatic vessels, Mascagni established that every vessel must in its course enter one or more lymph glands. He rearranged and completed the observations of others and overhauled their techniques. Mascagni also performed experiments, using the mercury injection method and so improving it that it surpassed all preceding techniques. In the light of his excellent results, the simplicity of the technique is truly surprising. The only instrument used was a tubular needle bent at a right angle; yet he observed, named, and described nearly all the lymph glands and vessels of the human body, checking earlier observations and carrying out new ones.

Mascagni examined the views of Boerhaave and his followers, who believed that the lymphatics arose from the tips of the arteries and were shaped like ramified conical vessels. These vessels formed canals that gradually became thinner; and these canals, by continuing into the veins, brought some sort of material to the blood and therefore were related to the lymphatic system. Mascagni demonstrated, however, that such arterial and venous lymphatics did not exist. After examining the work of Noguez, Hamberger, and Hoffmann and the results of his own researches, Mascagni concluded that the lymphatic system originates from all the cavities and surfaces of the body, both internal and external, and is related to the absorbing function. By means of colored injections he demonstrated the communication between the lymphs and the serous vessels.

Mascagni was appointed professor of anatomy at Pisa; he was also invited to hold professorships at Bologna and Padua, but accepted the vacant post at Florence. Indeed, the Tuscan government, desirous of securing his services, not only created one professorship covering anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and the teaching of art anatomy but also doubled the stipend. In appreciation of this generous offer, Mascagni began to prepare anatomical models for use by students of sculpture and painting. The various systems of the human body were to be represented on life-size figures, a grandiose concept that was carried out with the help of illustrations by Sienese artists. The huge cost of this colossal editorial venture obliged Mascagni to draw on his salary and even to mortgage the family estate. These generous efforts failed to yield the desired results, for he died before completing his lifework.


Mascagni’s first published writing was Vasorum lymphaticorum historia (Siena, 1784), the intro. to a work on lymphatic vessels. Of greater importance is Vasorum lymphaticorum corporis humani historia et iconographia (Siena, 1787). Mascagni also published commentaries on mineralogy, agriculture, chemistry, and physics.

His first posthumously published work was that on anatomy for use by students of sculpture and painting (Florence, 1816). There followed two introductions to the Anatomia: the Antonmarchi edition, prepared under the supervision of Antonmarchi, who was Napoleon’s physician and Mascagni’s pupil; and the edition prepared in Milan by Farnese. The latter is inferior because the redrawn plates are not as good as those in the Antonmarchi version. These editions were followed by the plates of the animal and vegetable organs illustrated in the intro. to the Anatomia (Florence, 1819).

Mascagni’s monumental Anatomia universa XLIV tabulis aeneis iuxta archetipum hominis adulti accuratissime repraesentata (Pisa, 1823) is so large that one of its designers—Antonio Serantoni, a designer, engraver, and modeler in wax—prepared a special personal ed. in color; Anatomia universale descrittiva del Professor Paolo Mascagni (Florence, 1833), reproduced with copper plates smaller than those in the Pisa ed. Mascagni’s important works also include the many wax models preserved in Italian and foreign museums.

Federico Allodi