"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Romantic anatomy models

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

This is Romantic in the classical sense, although they're also kind of romantic in the aesthetic sense, as well. These anatomy models, made from wax, were used to teach 18th-century Italian med students all about the human body. There are full-body models, and detailed models of specific parts. Several of full-body models wear wigs, and most are set in states of cool repose, looking as though they're waiting for a lover to climb up a ladder to their window. It's kind of all the awesomeness of the plastinated bodies exhibits that are popular today, without having to worry about whether the body you're looking at once belonged to a Chinese political prisoner.

You can find the models in La Specola, the Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence. Darren Milligan took this photo and has a whole gallery of other great shots on Flickr that you should really check out. Besides these lady models, there's also a flayed man, and a disembodied face peeled back to the eyeball.

EDIT: Pesco points out that guest-blogger Mark Dery did a whole a feature on these models for us back in 2009. Go check it out! There's lots more photos and cool history.


  1. When I was in Florence, I visited this museum, correctly guessing that it would be awesome, but incorrectly guessing that it would be packed. I literally had the place to myself for an hour and a half. It made it all the more surreal. I guess in Florence there’s just so many tourist draws that something that isn’t ridiculously beautiful/delicious/historically significant has a hard time competing for attention.

    1. You lucky devil. I know what you mean about it being surreal. While not nearly as cool as this, a friend and I once had the run of Space Mountain in Disney Land to ourselves for the better part of a morning. We’d get off and then just race back to the entrance…over and over…what a blast!

      1. Heh, I did that at Space Mountain too one day (it was drizzling a bit), and then did the Matterhorn later (including convincing them to run it one more time than they were going to before closing at the end of the night).

        Back on topic, when I was in Florence and elsewhere in Italy I did often feel that the really cool stuff (as far as the BB crowd is concerned) was not what any of the tourists were looking at. I did not go to this museum (I was 15 and didn’t know about it) but saw plenty of other neat stuff that no tourists seemed to be interested in.

        The stuff in Italy that tourists are interested in are, of course, so numerous that it’s overwhelming, so it’s not too surprising.

  2. Ha! Glad to see this here. Years and years ago I saw these referenced in a book for either an Art History or a Women’s Studies course. It’s cool to bump into them again, and this time I will remember where they are.

  3. YES!  I am SO happy that someone had some good photos to share of this museum- I had thought about trying to share some of mine, but they’re not nearly as good!
    It’s not an easy place to find, you walk through a tiny carpark and up some stairs into the university, but for anyone who has any interest in science/history this is really an amazing little place.  The detail in the waxwork anatomy models is just remarkable- my husband was “with me” through all the taxidermy specimens in the first half of the museum, but turned green and ran away during the second half (with the waxwork models), definitely not his thing.  And the taxidermy specimens were very interesting, too, as you could tell from many of them that the person doing the taxidermy was likely handed a skin, and had not seen the animal alive themselves (as the note next to the hippo shows- hippos walk on their toes, not the base of the foot like humans and like the taxidermy shows!).  Anyway, thanks for sharing this great little place!

  4. I have a 7″ which uses a photo of one of these models as cover art, and an edition of “Frankenstein” which used another. Nice to know the history behind them!

    1. i so agree. this stuff is not beautiful but horrifying and follows a long a tradition of mutilation of ‘beautiful young women’ as  objects of sexual titillation (yes there is a reason why they are all nubile long tressed young women). Compare for instance these figures with the police drawing of Catherine Eddowes one of ‘Jack the Ripper’s” victims. Also look at Delacroix Death of Sardanapalus and even more horrifying is Botticelli’s Nastagio degli Onesti, (commissioned as a wedding gift no less) – where a young woman is run down for eternity by a jiltled suitor, naked , killed, her entrails fed to his hunting dogs. Just to name a few – sick.

  5. Museo Galilei also has similar wax models, but gynaecological, showing in-vitro babies and the different ways they can present. Was there last December, just before Christmas, when everything was very quiet (good time to visit). And yes, saw the finger, and also his tooth.

  6. Wonderful. I’ve been there a few times, as I’ve been in other museums of the same kind… It was a common practice in those years, you can find the same thing in several Italian universities. However, some statues stand out like real art pieces for the level of grace, beauty, and expressiveness. One of the major artists in the area was Clemente Susini: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/clementesusini.aspx

    A beautiful book was publisged by Taschen some years ago:

  7. I am soooo glad you posted this. This whole week I kept on kicking myself for not submitting my photos at the Specola in Florence. The place was amazing. My art teacher took us there and it was such a nice break from all the churches and religious art.  

    Not to menti0n it was creepy weird and completely beautiful. I took some amazing photographs that day.

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