Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: La Specola Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

Specola Head "Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?," wonders one of the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. He speaks for Cronenberg, who took up the thread in an interview he and I conducted. "We have contests in which we decide who is the most beautiful woman in the world," said Cronenberg, "and yet, if you were to show the inside of that woman's body, you would have a lot of grossed-out people. Why is that? We should be able to have a World's Most Perfect Kidney contest, where women or men unzip to show their kidneys. We can't become integral creatures until we come to terms with our bodies and we haven't come remotely close to that. We're incredibly schizophrenic."

Cronenberg's visceral aesthetic is bodied forth (so to speak) in La Specola, an 18th century anatomical museum at the University of Florence. It's fitting that the name, from the Latin for mirror (the museum is housed in a former observatory), is close etymological kin to speculum, an instrument used, as every woman knows, to dilate the opening of a body cavity for examination. La Specola is home to a collection of visible women and men, medical teaching aids that comprise some of the finest examples of ceroplasty, the art of modeling anatomical specimens in wax.

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La Specola's waxworks are wondrous strange, indeed---a pathological beauty pageant worthy of Cronenberg's wildest dreams. "Le Grazie Smontate,"the "Dissected Graces" of the master modeler Clemente Susini (1754-1814), is a trio of recumbent young women, their tresses spilling over their shoulders, their shapely legs gracefully arranged, the fat, yellow sausages of their intestines coiled neatly on their disemboweled torsos. Gazing languorously up at the viewer, one grace toys girlishly with a braid, her modesty intact despite her bared entrails. Another sloe-eyed beauty flaunts a pert rosebud of a nipple, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that her breast hangs from a flap of flesh peeled back to expose her heart. The hard nipples; the bent leg partly covering (or coyly revealing?) the downy pubes; the head thrown back, lips slightly parted, in an attitude that hovers unsettlingly between post-orgasmic languor and the marionette floppiness of the corpse: these images tap a subterranean river in the erotic imagination. Behind the curtain of scientific progress and public edification drawn across La Specola lurks the shadow of a more than clinical interest in such things.

La Specola Twins In Utero

In A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America, Michael Sappol argues that the popular anatomical museums of the 19th century---that is, those museums open to the general (male) public, as opposed to those for medical professionals only---cannily exploited this pornographic subtext even as they veiled it in moral sanctimony. "[B]eginning in the 1830s and intensifying in succeeding decades, there arose a variety of anatomical entrepreneurs, eager to cultivate, exploit, and cater to the audience for anatomy through anatomical museums and exhibits,"writes Sappol. "And from the outset...anatomy was assimilated to the purposes of satisfying and profiting from the demand for sexual material, to its critics pornography."

Hillel Schwartz has his finger on the source of the Venus's bizarre charms when he writes, "The female anatomical figure with removable parts...was truly a pedagogical tool, but in wax it also suggested malleability, voluptuousness, and morbidezza: delicate flesh." There's a voluptuous luster to her beeswax-and-animal fat flesh that makes her uncannily lifelike, more so after two centuries than modern waxworks made of synthetic paraffins or the latex-skinned grotesques in theme-park robot dramas. Unlike an actual cadaver, whose waxy pallor makes it look as lifeless as a mannequin, the Dissected Venus seems almost to glow, if not with life, with a robust undeath.

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Of course, any poetic reveries about the sex appeal of Dissected Venuses must take account of the extent to which these wax women hold a mirror up to culture rather than the nature---specifically, the Enlightenment culture into which they were born, when scientists were busy weaving myths about gender and the "natural order" that denied women the democratic promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and redefined them as weaker vessels, consecrated to procreation and (male) recreation. The anatomical models of the day dramatized this reduction of woman to womb.

But, all that said, the creepy seductions of eviscerated wax women can't be neatly disposed of as a misogynist's guilty pleasure. There's more to La Specola's anatomical models than meets the male gaze. They were essential aids to medical pedagogy and obscure objects of desire, disseminating life-saving knowledge about female anatomy even as they reaffirmed the primacy of women's sexual and maternal functions. Now, more than two hundred years after their birth, the anatomical Venuses still taunt us. The morbid fantasies they inspire are reviled by feminist critics and relished by aesthetic transgressors in the Bataillean mode.


Walking from vitrine to vitrine, in La Specola, I'm mesmerized by the visceral charms of these obstetric Ophelias, floating through the centuries on suggestively rumpled sheets. I can't tear my eyes away from the hallucinogenically vivid colors of their coiled intestines, no less lovingly modeled than their unmistakably Florentine faces. Their sheets are brittle, fraying to ribbons, but they seem not to have aged a day since they were first unveiled to the public eye in 1780. Analyzing the welter of conflicting reactions, philosophical and psychological, that they inspire, I recognize these Aphrodites of the Operating Theater as disquiet muses of the Pathological Sublime---sisters of the nude sleepwalkers in Paul Delvaux's surrealist nocturnes, or of the naked victim in Duchamp's creepy, Hitchcockian last work, a museum-style diorama of a sex murder called Étant donnés. I think of the Victorian critic Walter Pater's famous meditation on the Mona Lisa:

 Images 2416846549 465185130C [L]ike the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.

F. Gonzalez-Crussi calls wax modeling, which replaced the cadaver on the dissection table with a lifelike simulacrum, "the first successful effort we undertook to distance ourselves from the dead. Since then, we have not ceased in our efforts to deepen the gulf."The invention of ceroplasty marks the beginning of the history of the virtual cadaver, an ongoing chronicle whose latest chapter is the Visible Human Project, in which a male corpse was sliced into 1871 millimeter-thin sections with a laser, digitized, and transformed into a navigable 3-D atlas of the human body, accessible via the World Wide Web.

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Paradoxically, wax anatomical models also recall us to a time when death and disease were an everyday affair and we were able to establish what Gonzalez-Crussi calls "a certain communion with the dead." La Specola's wax women offer a taste of that sacrament.

Via Romana, 17 - 50125 Firenze
telefono biglietteria 055 2288251
Orario di apertura al pubblico: tutti i giorni dalle 9.30 alle 16.30
chiusura: lunedì
chiusure annuali: 1 gennaio, Pasqua, 1 maggio, 15 agosto, 25 dicembre

More here, courtesy the droll, endlessly fascinating Atlas Obscura, and here, at the redoubtable Curious Expeditions, and here.

Photos (except Specola Head and La Specola Twins In Utero): Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.com. All rights reserved.

Specola Head and La Specola Twins In Utero: Postcards. Reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.


  1. I used to live in Florence and frequent this place!
    Amazing to say the least. The taxidermy section was archaic and you could see the quilt stitch patchwork that went into trying to mold each animal to it’s armature. A must see if you happen to be in Firenze.

  2. Well that’s just a smidgen on the monstrous side, isn’t it.

    But to be fair, I do admire the masterful work of the sculptors. It’s just the creepy, post-coital poses that don’t at all fit the subject. I guess this is the sort of marketing scientists had to do 230 years ago, in order to gain the public interest.

  3. I think the lovely post-coital poses give the subjects dignity and grace. So much more so than a lifeless cadaver on a steel table. (Talk about creepy!) These goddesses look as though they’ve given their bodies to science, ecstatically. They are magnificent!

  4. I understand that this may go against the popular sentiment here, but I’m pretty disturbed by these images and sort of wish they hadn’t shown up in my feed reader without warning. Atleast not without a unicorn chaser.

    Don’t mean to offend, just felt like voicing my opinion. I don’t do well with stuff as graphic as this. I can respect the right of the contributor to post it. . . but ew.

  5. “Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?”

    Desire needs something to attach itself to and a dead body doesn’t offer much in the way of prospects. A lifeless landscape is no place to plant a seed, so to speak.

  6. The open heart surgery scene in “All That Jazz” may approach that interior beauty contest. The heart pumps with such grace and strength that is was at least as astonishing as any of the rest of the dancing in that movie.

    Watching your own sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy is somewhat similar. That healthy pink of the intestinal wall has a certain beauty to it that is totally unexpected. Our bodies are miraculous and yet we don’t recognize that fact. To be able to stand or breathe or think is a miracle but we never pay attention to it until we can’t do it.

  7. “We have contests in which we decide who is the most beautiful woman in the world,” said Cronenberg, “and yet, if you were to show the inside of that woman’s body, you would have a lot of grossed-out people. Why is that?”

    Well David, maybe it’s because historically when you can see a person’s internal organs, it means that they are either dead, or grievously injured. To most people that’s sort of a turn-off.

    The exhibits are lovely and interesting; they show tremendous artistry and skill. But I can’t help thinking that they were created by sort of a Jack the Ripperish kind of guy.

  8. Well, what I’m thinking is……..Why didn’t I think of this while in art school?! It is thought provoking overload; and, the human body is a timeless adventure in beauty. It certainly is not like looking at a forensic report which can be extremely ghoulish. This is beautiful. Eleanor in Las Cruces,New Mexico.

  9. Minor practicality, I don’t think the visible human project data were generated by laser cutting, they are noninvasive MRI and then cryosections generated with the medical equivalent of a bacon slicer.

  10. Frankly, nothing in those images display the beauty of the human innards.

    Because they aren’t human innards. What is shown are a squeaky clean reprsentations.

    One *can* oogle naked live people. And while Playboy produces also fantasy, some people actually *look* like centerfolds.

    However, if you want to look at the real beauty of innards, visit the slaughterhouse.

    Or look at this:


    (Warning: Some might need an unicorn chaser)

  11. @#7 posted by noen, August 15, 2009 11:13 AM

    “Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?”

    Desire needs something to attach itself to and a dead body doesn’t offer much in the way of prospects. A lifeless landscape is no place to plant a seed, so to speak.”

    A very good interesting comment I think.

    However, I’m not quite sure what the question is actually meant to mean. Is the questions one about an appreciation of the innards, or something else?

    I’m not even sure that we don’t already have an aesthetic of the body.


    If I may indulge in wikipedia-based answers (and in this instance I’d say it’s useful), then there already is an aesthetic of the innards of body.

    It may not be in the manner in which Cronenberg suggests (and here I can only speculate). Maybe he means more should be written – in which case we’re really talking about that which is more likely to be the domain of professional writers and academics in general. If, however, he is not restricting the meaning to this form, then I’d argue there certainly IS an aesthetic of the bodies gizzards: we don’t like them much and we find them generally repulsive and unpleasant to look at. That is, unless they’re removed from us and placed on telly as part of a medical documentary or show. Then we can watch more closely (though many still can’t).

    In this case I’d argue we do have an aesthetic. It is generally discursive in nature rather than written (non-discursive) and the community values and views are locatable, transcribable and thus able to be made evident in a variety of media (from video to paper).

  12. Loved the post, Mark. Interesting stuff and so perfect for me to find today, since I’ve been writing about a fictional “Museum of Anatomical Wonders” this week.

    I also appreciated Andrea’s posting a link to Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic.”
    My great-great grandmother was a medical student at the Blackwell sisters’ Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in the late 1860’s. She studied and socialized with women like Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Sophia Jex-Blake and Mary Putnam Jacobi, and by 1872, she was the first female physician accepted into the Medical Society of New Jersey. Every time I see an image of that painting (1875), I wonder what she would have thought of it. I’m sure she would have sympathized with the mother depicted in the painting, but I think she also would have felt offended by the prevailing notion of the day that women must turn away from the surgical hand, the exposed body (inside and out.)

    Two summers ago, in researching those first women in medicine, I asked a friend to teach me to suture. It still surprises me to think of how artistic as well as focused the process felt – something akin to learning fine needlework. I blogged about it when I was done…


    Thanks again for the thoughtful, interesting post.

  13. This is just a continuation of a centuries old fascination with aestheticizing the dead female body. Why not the insides of a dead male body at this museum?

    Elisabeth Bronfen’s scholarly work “Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic” argues that it’s as if only women have bodies (culturally/psychically convenient for men) so only they can embody and represent death.

    Not that edgy if you look at it this way. Same ol’, same ol’…

  14. Thanks for the post and the trip down memory lane for me. My wife and son (then just shy of 10) and I visited La Specola back in 2007, and while your post dies capture an important an interesting element of the museum, it leaves a few things out that I thought I’d share:

    * There are a TON of less photogenic but interesting wax medical props/tools, things much less dramatic than the torsos and entrails. For example, I have some photos of a variety of wax knee joints because we were on this trip right after my wife had messed up her knee. I could see in these 18th century models what had gone wrong.

    * Most of the museum (to my recollection at least) is actually taxidermy and other preserved animals. Two picts I have on flickr include:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendkrause/224149420/in/set-72157594250402697/ (snakes)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendkrause/224423377/in/set-72157594250402697/ (butterflies)

    There were a zillion other stuffed animals in there though, including a stuffed rhino, I think.

    * It was a great place to take a kid, contrary to some of the “I don’t want to see that kind of stuff on the web” comments that come before this. Our son treated it mostly like a weird zoo, and he was also fascinated/grossed out (in a fun kid sorta way) with the wax anatomy, too.

  15. The evidence that Duchamp’s Étant donnés has anything to to with sex murders seems to be that the figure’s pose resembles the black dahlia murder.

    I.e woman with legs apart, arm outstretched (oh and holding a lamp, point of no resemblance at all), and Man Ray, who isn’t Marcel Duchamp, knew one of the suspects. It isn’t based on anything Duchamp ever said did or wrote.

  16. #16 posted by peterbruells:

    You’d linked to a photo in the middle of the elephant autopsy…I thought I was looking at a Ron Mueck-style, giant human autopsy, performed on a surreal stage by a group of orange-suited pathologists, and was wondering what material they’d used to create that huge swatch of realistic, webbed material.

    Come to think of it, that’d be a fantastic bit of theater…hmmm…Gulliver’s Autopsy!

    Off to ring my producer.

  17. Actually, the image of “Etant donne” reminds me a little of “The woman with the golden hair,” a story cited by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

    The opening reminds me of the Midrash story of Adam’s second wife, created for him after Lilith left him. God created her right in front of Adam, showing the all the organs and bones and viscera– when she was finished, she so horrified Adam (he saw her being “full of blood and secretions”) he refused to go near her or even give her a name.

  18. I’ve been there, and it is a trip! But, I was told the name refers to its telescope observatory, not to a mirror.

  19. The Anon two above me talks about the Taschen book of the works. One day my wife bought me the book at a half-price bookstore. It’s amazing! I highly suggest picking up a copy if you get a chance.

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