Today was the closing day of an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan that featured four 18th-century life-size wax anatomical models—figures that are often referred to as "anatomical Venuses"—on loan from "La Specola," the Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence, Italy. The figures are displayed alongside a short film by David Cronenberg called Four Unloved Women, Adrift on a Purposeless Sea, Experience the Ecstasy of Dissection.
Forbes explains the origins of the figures:
Raised as a Roman Catholic, Grand Duke Peter Leopold was taught to condemn human dissection, which the Church Fathers deemed sacrilegious because it stripped the dead of viscera needed for the Last Judgement. But Peter Leopold was an enlightened despot who didn't want subjects to perish at the hands of unpracticed medics. In the early 1770s, the Italian physiologist Felice Fontana offered him a deal he couldn't refuse. In return for a supply of fresh cadavers, Fontana promised to replace human flesh with colored wax.
The technology was already well established. In ancient Greece, sculptors modeled wax to create funeral masks. Known as ceroplastics, the craft was revived in Renaissance Florence, and used to produce realistic-looking votive offerings such as ersatz hands and feet. Artists also introduced wax to religious statuary, often intentionally grotesque, embellished with real hair and teeth to maximize dramatic effect. Even a few anatomists had experience with ceroplastics, wrapping waxwork muscles around real-life skeletons for prolonged surgical study. (It helped that they weren't smelly.) . . .
The historical term for such models is anatomical Venus. Many hundreds were made at the University of Florence under Fontana's supervision with Peter Leopold's patronage. Their anatomical accuracy was ensured by the cadavers provided to Fontana, which were dissected in the presence of sculptors who deftly replicated each part of the body. Because the wax could be cast, the models could be replicated and distributed far and wide. Prior to the invention of color photography, they were deemed the best available representation of human anatomy, optimal for teaching because they sidestepped religious controversy, diminished grave robbery, and averted the gag reflex induced by putrid flesh.
We Make Money Not Art describes the figures:
La Specola is one of the museums where you can admire the world's most extensive collection of eighteenth-century wax models of human anatomy, some of them by celebrated wax modeller Gaetano Giulio Zumbo. Created in 1775 and open to both medical students and the general public, La Specola is one of the oldest science museums in Europe. One of the most famous items in its collections is the Anatomical Venus. The life-sized wax woman looks like Sleeping Beauty with her real human hair, graceful limbs and rosy cheeks until you realise that her body is made of dozens of removable parts. You can peel back her layers to reveal organs, bones, muscles and even a foetus curled in her womb. Sister models soon appeared throughout Europe, for the education of students and the delight of the public. Far from being just neutral instruments used in the context of medical education, these wax women were not only masterpieces of Florentine artistry, but they also provide insight into a period when scientists were investigating gender and the "natural order" that defined women as weaker sex centred around sexual and maternal functions.
Fondazione Prada provides this overview of the exhibit:
"Cere Anatomiche" (Anatomical Waxes) is the second exhibition project in which Fondazione Prada highlights an important cultural institution with a strong, well-defined identity, and promotes an unusual interpretation of it by setting it in a contemporary, multidisciplinary context. The human anatomy collection of "La Specola" Museum in Florence—established
in 1775 for scientific purposes and opened to the public at an early date—is a collection with an educational bent, which not only constitutes a detailed historical and scientific study, but also an artistic one. Indeed, the wax models and drawings, made by the Ceroplastic Workshop of the Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History in Florence during the 18th and 19th centuries, have a dual nature and as such allow for multiple interpretations and perspectives.
On the two floors of the Podium, the artist and the museum offer visitors complementary visions: a creative one and a scientific one. In the short film Four Unloved Women, Adrift on a Purposeless Sea, Experience the Ecstasy of Dissection(2023), shown in a setting inspired by anatomical theaters, Cronenberg places the four La Specola Venuses in an alternative narrative and develops themes present in his work, such as bodily wounds and mutations, pleasure, and the aesthetic and sensual value of the body's insides. The museum's scientific narrative, on the other hand, is housed on the upper floor, in an arrangement of display cases that points to the rigor of the science museum and presents wax models of 4 entire female figures and 9 body sections from the Obstetrics Room, along with a selection of 72 drawings representative of the different rooms and scientific sections of the collection: Digestive and Respiratory System, Osteology and Arthrology, Cardiovascular Apparatus, Urogenital and Genital System, Lymphatic System, Cranial Nerves and Sensory Organs, Central Nervous System, Peripheral and Autonomic Nervous System, Myology.
The project focuses on the female body and how it has been represented for scientific purposes but using artistic means. Cronenberg's short film and the models selected for the exhibition testify to the cultural references and medical knowledge at the root of the collection of wax models, but also reveal aspects related to the image of women, sexuality, and pleasure that are still valid today. The result is simultaneously an art exhibition, an anatomy lesson, a video about desire, and an educational experiment aimed at recounting the significance of a collection and its history, revealing the contribution of creative thought to knowledge, and promoting interest in scientific studies.
The exhibit ran from March 24, 2023 to July 17, 2023, but if you missed it, you can watch this 10-minute film posted on the Tele Rivadolceriva YouTube channel that includes a walk-through of the exhibit (first five minutes) and Cronenberg's film (starting at 5:34). Fair warning: it's all pretty disturbing (but also fascinating and beautiful).