Today wax figures are synonymous with Madame Tussaud’s life-sized sculptures of famous movie stars, athletes, and historical figures, as a tourist attraction. What many may not know is that Tussaud’s wax modelling skills were actually apprenticed from a physician, Dr. Philippe Curtius, and that Curtius used these skills not only as a medium for the fine arts but for creating realistic anatomical models for medical education. As dissections of human cadavers were still infrequent and religiously opposed, and illustrations were limited by their two-dimensional nature, the art of anatomical modelling began to blossom in 18th century Europe. Frequently, these models were not simply instructional diagrams but also communicated the relationship between the human body and the divinely created world as a whole, as understood at the time.
Of particular interest are several Italian wax models of women sometimes called the “Anatomical Venuses”, created by Clemente Susini in Florence after he joined the workshop of La Specola in 1773. These life-sized figures are reclined on a silk bed in a glass and rosewood case, adorned with glass eyes and human hair, and can be dismembered into dozens of parts to reveal its finely crafted anatomy. Not at all suggestive of a medical specimen, these attractive figures recall the beauty of classical sculpture and almost seem to be alive.
Their languid gaze has been described as recalling that seen in the sculpture Blessed Ludovica Albertoni by Bernini, completed in 1674, where Ludovica is portrayed in a moment of mystical communion with God as her death nears. These figures thus make a statement about the nature of life and death, connecting a medical understanding of the body with its greater purpose of serving as a vessel for the soul during its time on Earth. The medical students of the time would be reminded of the context of their practice each time they used these models.
Today, these figures are open for public viewing in the museums of medical institutions as objects of art and spectacle, perhaps not unlike Madame Tussaud’s exhibitions. As I learned about them during my research on the use of modelling in medical education, I could not help but become fascinated by this combination of the medical, the artistic, the religious and the social context which exemplifies the appeal of studying the history of medicine for many.
- Ballestriero, Roberta. Anatomical models and wax Venuses: art masterpieces or scientific craft works? Journal of Anatomy. 216(2):223-234.
- Ebenstein, Joanna. “An Ode to an Anatomical Venus.” Atlas Obscura. 14 Feb 2013. Web. <http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-ode-to-an-anatomical-venus-morbid-anatomy>
- Kemp, Martin and Wallace, Marina. Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now. Hayward Gallery, University of California Press. 2000.
- Riva, Alessandro. Flesh & Wax: Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Models in the University of Cagliari. Illiso Publishing House. 2007.