Published On: Thu, Mar 23rd, 2017

Why these Anatomical Models are not Disgusting

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However uncanny they might seem to us, the wax figures were primarily teaching tools. According to Ebenstein, “Each pristine wax model at the museum was the product of the careful study of cadavers that were delivered from the nearby Santa Maria Nuova hospital.” They remain close to life. “Over 200 years after their creation, La Specola’s waxworks are still considered remarkably accurate, some of them demonstrating anatomical structures that had yet to be named or described at the time of their making.”

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Yet in making them more attractive than a cadaver, the waxwork sculptors were also creating art works. As Ebenstein argues, the anatomical Venus evoked “a long history of paintings and sculptures of placid, idealised nudes”. And that’s where the human detail that unnerves us came in. “She is designed to charm in every detail: her glistening glass eyes are rimmed with real eye-lashes, her bared throat is bound by a string of pearls, and she boasts a lustrous cascade of human hair.” This figure is known as ‘the Sleeping Beauty’: a 1925 replica of the original piece from 1767, it’s a breathing wax model by Swiss physician and master wax sculptor Philippe Curtius. (Credit: Madame Tussauds Archives, London. Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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It’s a world away from Madame Tussauds. No grinning faces to be photographed in selfies; no celebrity glamour or statesmanlike poses. These are waxworks that both intrigue and repulse: models that seem to hover somewhere between freak show and operating theatre. Ebenstein aims to place them in their cultural context, looking at the history of the anatomical Venus and finding out where it fits in the 21st Century. “Since their creation in late-18th-Century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. In the 21st Century, they also confound, flickering on the edges of medicine and myth, votive and vernacular, fetish and fine art,” she writes in her opening chapter. “How can we understand today an object that is at once a seductive representation of ideal female beauty and an explicit demonstration of the inner workings of the body? How can we make sense of an artefact that was once equally at home in the fairground and the medical museum?” This life-size 40-piece anatomical Venus is from Pierre Spitzner’s 19th-Century collection. (Credit: Université de Montpellier anatomical collection/Photo Marc Dantan/Courtesy of Thames & Hudson Ltd)

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Created between 1780 and 1782, the original anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini (pictured) can still be seen at La Specola – the public science museum founded by Leopold II in Florence. Also known as ‘the Medici Venus’, the life-size wax figure has real human hair, and can be dissected into seven anatomically correct layers. She spawned numerous copies, referred to as Slashed Beauties or Dissected Graces and also displayed in medical museums. “Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a gentle smile or an ecstatic downcast gaze,” writes Ebenstein in The Anatomical Venus. “One idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten satin cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection; another is crowned with a golden tiara, while one further wears a silk ribbon tied in a bow around a dangling entrail.” (Credit: Museo di Storia Naturale Università di Firenze, Zoologica, ‘La Specola’, Italy/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Ebenstein realised that the Venus was not an oddity: it was truly a product of its time. Leopold II founded La Specola after becoming the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765; he aimed to educate Florentines in the empirical observation of natural laws and challenge the more irrational practices of the Roman Catholic church. His new museum, Ebenstein argues, “would make available to the general public the rare and valuable cultural artefacts previously secreted in the Medici Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder”. In a period when the study of the natural world included what we know today as science, aesthetics and metaphysics, she claims, “the Medici Venus was a perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment values of her time, in which human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge, and in which to know the human body was to know the mind of God.”

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Venerina (Little Venus), is a 1782 life-size dissectible wax model created by the workshop of Clemente Susini at La Specola for Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy. (Credit: Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Universita’ di Bologna. Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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