Progressive 1770s Catholic Church Commissioned Anatomical Wax Models to Educate Public On Their Bodies

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Science, religion, and the intimate knowledge of human bodies has historically not quite been comfortably aligned. Yet from 1771 through the latter 1800s[1], the Catholic Church, in a collaborative effort with Prince Leopold II[2] and anatomist Felice Fontana[3], commissioned scientists and artists to work together to create over 1400 pieces of wax anatomical models[4] of: the male and female bodies and genitalia, the pregnant womb, fetuses, babies, eyes, brain, bone, muscle, fascia. Not only did these models eventually serve as a three-dimensional textbook of sorts for medical education, but the initial intent was to educate commoners and parishioners[5] about the human body as Europe’s first public science museum[6]: individuals simply had to be clothed to enter and see the exhibit in Florence, Italy’s Museum of Physics and Natural History (now referred to as “La Specola”).[7] This was in 1775.[8]

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Incredibly, even though it was nearly two and a half centuries ago, the anatomical representations were for the most part quite accurate.[9] img_4169_ns-a_crThe wax models were carefully designed from hospital cadavers. According to Joanna Ebenstein, author of The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death and the Ecstatic, Eleanor Crook, who has restored some of the wax pieces, suggests that the bodies and parts were hand-sculpted rather than cast, because expired organs would have been deflated and differently colored if the artists had made casts of the organs.[10]

Artistically, the renderings of the flesh are pristine. If not paying attention, the women models in repose, the “Anatomical Venus” or “Medici Venus” by Clemente Susini[11], one of the more famously artistic wax modelers[12], look as if they are sleeping. Yet looking to their torsos, and opening their torsos – innards cascade out.

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Like the other sculptures and artwork of the period, the intricacy of detail holds one in awe. Even the sinewy, full-sized male figures have a haunting, life-like look in their eyes, and are positioned in natural postures.

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Generally the personage of the wax bodies were purposefully idealized to draw in a viewer.[13] img_4020_ns-a_x_crYet other pieces have a more honest rendering of the exterior of the body: the toenail of this model foot looks much more realistic than the manicured, idealized Venuses.

 

Interestingly, Ebenstein notes that she has not seen a female anatomical wax model without a womb bearing a fetus.[14] img_3838_ns-a_x_cr Hunter Oatman-Stanford, who interviewed Ebenstein, proposes this was perhaps the Church’s “framing…the miracle of life.”[15] It is also the female bodies that retain skin, whereas the male bodies are often skinless. img_4166_ns-a_cr Whether this was to preserve femininity[16] and the view at the time of the woman’s purpose as reproduction and men for science and intellectualism, can only be surmised.

 

Marketing-wise, naming the female models “Venus” appealed to and attracted the wealthy Europeans who would do a Grand Tour to see the famous artwork throughout the continent. In Florence, the goal was to see each of the renown Venuses; the wax anatomical Venus, by being thus named, would have made it onto the Grand Tour itinerary. By following the traditional art of an idealized, nude female form in repose, the models would have not been associated with death[17] and instead fit into what was culturally aesthetically normed.

Myself a non-clinician, and someone who values tangibly understanding how things work, the exhibit at La Specola is brilliant. img_4562_x_a_crHaving a visual presentation of organs and the different layers of the body connect three-dimensionally is much more useful for education than a flat, textbook drawing. img_4566_x_a_crMuseo Galileo in Florence has an exhibit of obstetrical models made of the womb and baby in labor, often in various complications and to demonstrate how obstetrical tools should be used. The anatomical wax models here were made specifically for medical education.[18] Florence historically was a place of scientific progress. Tracing down the thread of time to now, medicine currently also uses life-like models for education, but with technological advances those models are in the form of high-fidelity patient simulators, where ultrasounds can actually be done on the model pregnant woman, or even a spinal tap on a model baby simulator. img_2563_cr

What was valued then in the late 1700s through the 1800s in Firenze when the wax anatomical models of the human body were being created for the museum, was art’s place alongside science in communicating research and designing functional scientific models, instruments, and innovations. Science and art were intertwined and advanced together, making, I would argue, the study of each as well as society more balanced, informed, and rich. img_3976_ns-a_cr

 

 

[1] Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”). (2016). Informational plaques. 8 September 2016.

[2] Outman-Stanford, H. (2016, June 16.) Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God. Collectors Weekly. Retrieved June 18, 2016 from: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/sacred-anatomy/.

[3] Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”). Informational plaques.; Corti, C. The anatomical wax collection. Retrieved September 9, 2016 from Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”): http://www.msn.unifi.it/en/collezioni/ceroplastica-2/cere-anatomiche/.

[4] Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”). Informational plaques.; Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[5] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[6] Florence, Italy: La Specola Anatomical Collection. Retrieved September 9, 2016 from Atlas Obscura: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/la-specola.

[7] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[8] Florence, Italy: La Specola Anatomical Collection, from Atlas Obscura.

[9] Simoni, R. (2016). Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”). 8 September 2016.; Universita Degli Studi Firenze: Museo Di Storia Naturale (“La Specola”). Informational plaques.

[10] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[11] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[12] Ballestriero, R. (2010). Anatomical models and wax Venuses: art masterpieces or scientific craft works? Journal of Anatomy, 216(2), 223–234. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7580.2009.01169.x

[13] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[14] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[15] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[16] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[17] Oatman-Stanford, H. Sacred Anatomy: Slicing Open Wax Women in the Name of Science and God.

[18] Museo Galileo, Firenze, Italia. (2016). Informational plaque. 9 September 2016.