This historical novel is set in 16th century Venice, where the great anatomist and physician Mateo Colombo has just been charged with heresy and placed under house arrest. The book proceeds in a series of short frames or fragments, presenting Colombo’s story from a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from the perspective of Mona Sofia, the most prestigious whore in Venice, to that of Leonardino, the crow who waits each morning to scavenge an eyeball or piece of flesh from one of the anatomist’s cadavers.

What is Colombo’s heresy? True, he has consistently violated the Papal Bull of Pope Boniface VIII that forbid obtaining cadavers for dissection, but his scholarly eminence and friendship with Pope Paul III have protected him from recrimination. His heresy is far worse than simply ignoring a Papal Bull; in fact, Mateo Colombo has discovered a dangerous new anatomical structure, the clitoris!

Mateo was called to the bedside of an unconscious holy woman named Inés de Torremolinos. In the process of examining her, the physician was amazed to discover "between his patient’s legs a perfectly formed, erect and diminutive penis." (p. 105) He took hold of the strange organ and began massaging it. As he did so, there was an amazing response in his patient: "(Her) breathing became hoarser and then broke into a loud panting . . . Her lifeless features changed into a lascivious grimace . . . " (p. 107) Subsequent research undertaken with Mona Sofia, the resplendent whore, as well as with cadavers, confirmed the significance of Colombo’s discovery.

At his hearing before the High Tribunal, Colombo explains his findings, which are far too complex and subtle to summarize (pp. 138-165). The finding of greatest interest, however, is that "there is no reason to believe that there exists in women such a thing as a soul." (p. 151) In fact, Colombo contends he has proven that the "amor veneris" or clitoris performs in women "similar functions to those of the soul in men, " although its nature "is utterly different since it depends entirely on the body." (p. 153)

You’ll have to read the book to discover what the verdict of the High Tribunal of the Holy Office was and Mateo Colombo’s fate.


This novel was highly controversial when it first appeared in Argentina, and its denunciation by the sponsor of a major literary prize in that country sparked a literary scandal. The novel’s basic conceit is the analogy (or comparison or synergism or contrast . . . choose your own noun) between Christopher Columbus’s "discovery" of the geographical New World in 1492, and Mateo Columbo’s discovery of the anatomical New World, the clitoris, a generation later.

Like his explorer namesake, the Renaissance anatomist ventured forth into new territory, setting aside prejudice and popular opinion, as well as (in Mateo’s case at least) the weight of church authority. However, although the anatomist struck a blow for objectivity in observation, his interpretation of the findings was compromised by cultural bias; in this case, by good old-fashioned misogyny. The human soul is the seat of reason; since women are controlled by passion rather than reason, perhaps they lack souls.

When Colombo came to the conclusion he had discovered the organ that produces passion ("amor veneris"), he assumed that, since the clitoris generates female behavior, it must be analogous to the soul, which generates male behavior. Needless to say, this theory will guarantee some heated discussion. If you thought Descartes’ concept of the pineal gland as the seat of the soul was bizarre, try this one.


Translated by Alberto Manguel. First published: 1997.



Place Published

New York



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