This example of Italian style shows the human hair and pearls used to make the Italian Venuses so glamorous.  Photo by Joanna Ebenstein.

The Unsettling Beauty of the Wax Venus : Anatomical Models Through History

A modern anatomical torso, by Axis Scientific

A modern anatomical torso, by Axis Scientific

As modern anatomy enthusiasts, we are familiar with the anatomical torso. With its clear depiction of the organs of the human midsection, anatomical torsos make great study and patient education aids. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, another anatomical model was a much more common sight – The Anatomical Venus.

Made of wax, and frequently depicted with real human hair, elaborate jewelry, and even makeup, these anatomical figures were created as a response to the difficulty of obtaining cadavers. On top of that, cadavers were not well preserved at that time, and the dissection of these remains was rather disgusting. While preservation techniques were improving by the 17th century, anatomists and scientists looked for an alternative means of presenting the anatomy of the human body in a clear way. At the end of the 17th century, a Sicilian artist and French surgeon collaborated on the creation of the first realistic anatomical model made of wax. The model was deemed a success, thanks to wax’s ability to hold form and color while not breaking down as quickly as other materials.

This blend of artistry and science spread across Europe, with distinct regional styles developing. The two most notable styles are the Italian and English. As is traditional with classic Italian art, the style that emerged from Florence displayed a sense of physical beauty, even eroticism, almost as if they were live, glamorous women, who just happened to have their organs exposed. These figures were designed with an “ideal beauty” in mind, with one famed museum director commenting that the models needed to be perfect and free of defect.

In comparison, the models created in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands appeared as if they were cadavers, with crude, lifeless pallor, and grotesque expression. While the Italian style seemed to balance beauty with anatomical detail, the English models were totally unadorned and practical.

This comparison of the English and Italian styles shows the stark contrast between them. A) Italian, 'La Specola' workshop, late 18th/early 19th century. B) English, Joseph Towne, circa 1827-79.

This comparison of the English and Italian styles shows the stark contrast between them. A) Italian, ‘La Specola’ workshop, late 18th/early 19th century. B) English, Joseph Towne, circa 1827-79.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Anatomical Venus was how readily available they were to the public. Patrons were fascinated by these models, and even Victorian women were permitted to visit the anatomical museums of the time. While they were admitted separately from gentlemen, women in Victorian England were encouraged to visit the museums and learn anatomy both to better take care of themselves and their families. The practice was, however, somewhat scandalous, with some arguing that anatomy was too indelicate for respectable women.

La Venerina, the Little Venus, by Clemente Susini.

La Venerina, the Little Venus, by Clemente Susini.

Among the most famous artists to create these Anatomical Venuses was Clemente Susini, an Italian sculptor who worked during the late 18th century. His work brought acclaim for its anatomical accuracy, as well as its incredible beauty. Many of his works are still visible at the Italian Museum of Zoology and Natural History, La Specola, in Florence, which houses more than 1400 anatomical wax models. Another of his more famous works is the Venerina, visible at the Museo di Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.

La Specola, Florence.

La Specola, Florence.

Interested in learning more about these gorgeous yet macabre anatomical models? Check out some of these links from around the web with more images and more information.

Links:

Featured photo by Joanna Ebenstein, The Secret Museum.

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