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


28 Responses to “Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: La Specola Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence”

  1. Anonymous says:

    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. pinehead says:

    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. wolfiesma says:

    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. Anonymous says:

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

  5. joshwebb says:

    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.

  6. noen says:

    “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.

  7. Andrea James says:

    This essay put me in mind of Eakins’ famous painting ‘The Gross Clinic’:


    The quintessential “male gaze” painting about horrible beauty, I think. I’ve always loved the term “surgical theater.” It’s notable that the only woman (often assumed to be the patient’s mother) is averting her eyes.

  8. nemrel says:

    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.

  9. gmoke says:

    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.

  10. Anonymous says:

    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’…

  11. D3 says:

    “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.

  12. Steven D. Krause says:

    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.

  13. Piers W says:

    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.

  14. mdh says:

    In order to be an “integral creature” i find myself in need of a unicorn chaser.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Reminds me of the Wellcome Collection’s Exquisite Bodies in London, which I saw last weekend:

  16. jfrancis says:

    Inspired, I just bought these anatomy DVD’s


  17. Anonymous says:

    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.

  18. IWood says:

    #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.

  19. erzatsen says:

    a’zon has an incredible Taschen book of exactly this. i wish it was a coffetable book sized tome, but it is that standard Taschen 7.5″x5.5″.
    still, breathtakingly beautiful.

    von Hagens and his garish, Gunther-come-lately plastinatery have nothing on these Italiens.

  20. Anonymous says:

    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.

  21. peterbruells says:

    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)

  22. erzatsen says:

    oh, yeah, i shoulda looked at some links before i made one.
    live and learn.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Hi All,

    Anyone interested in seeing som eof these amazing wax replicas can track down a book of their images published by Taschen. The book is called Anatomica and it is part of the Icons series.

    Also, having just checked their website, I can see they have republished this gorgeous book as part of their 25th anniversary series. Here is a link:


  24. Anonymous says:

    “Beuty contests concerning the inside of a woman’s body”?

    Yeah, that´s been done:

    Except now that I´ve spoiled it for you, you might wanna go directly to part 3.

  25. Super Nate says:

    This post demonstrates how the all seeing eye of JVT sees you.

  26. Padraig says:

    @#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).

  27. Anonymous says:

    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.

  28. Iamami says:

    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.

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