Regular readers of this blog are no doubt already aware of my near-obsession with the "Anatomical Venus," a kind of female wax anatomical model popularized in the 18th century. Over the past six years, I have made it my goal to find and photograph as many of these uncannily amazing pieces as possible (top 8 photos above), and to learn as much as I can about these lovely ladies, the historical moment in which they rose to prominence as the ideal way to illuminate the anatomy of woman for a popular audience, and their artistic and cultural legacy.
I was recently invited to contribute an article on this very topic to Women's Studies Quarterly's special "Enchantment" issue; you can read entire piece by clicking here, and an excerpt here:
Ode to an Anatomical Venus
“The purpose of anatomical images during the period of the Renaissance to the 19th century had as much to do with what we would call aesthetic and theological understanding as with the narrower interests of medical illustrators as now understood. . . They were not simply instructional diagrams for the doctor technician, but statements about the nature of human beings as made by God in the context of the created world as a whole . . . they are about the nature of life and death. . .”
—Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies
Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Venus, created around 1790, is, the central object of my artistic and scholarly contemplation. She is, in my opinion, the perfect object; one whose luxuriously bizarre existence challenges belief. It—or, better she—was conceived of as a means to teach human anatomy without need for constant dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught, and subject to quick decay. The Venus also tacitly communicated the relationship between the human body and a divinely created cosmos, between art and science, between nature and mankind as understood in its day.
Referred to also as “The Demountable Venus,” this life-sized, dissectible wax woman- -who can still be viewed in her original Venetian glass and rosewood case at La Specola Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence, Italy, as well as in a number of other European museums--is adorned with glass eyes and human hair and can be dismembered into dozens of parts revealing, at the final remove a beatific fetus curled in her womb. Her sisters—also anatomical models made under the artistic leadership of Susini, and referred to by such names as “The Slashed Beauty” and “The Dissected Graces” can be visited at a handful of European museums. Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a gentle smile or an ecstatic downcast gaze; one idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten velvet cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection, another is crowned with a golden tiara, while yet another has a silk ribbon tied in a bow tied around a dangling entrail
Since their creation in late-eighteenth-century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. Today, they also confound, troubling the edges of our neat categorical divides: life and death, science and art, body and soul, effigy and pedagogy, spectacle and education, kitsch and art. They are corporeal martyrs, anatomical odalisques, the uncanny incarnate. These wax models are the pinnacle of “artificial anatomies,” a tradition of three-dimensional, anatomical teaching tools stretching back to the turn of the eighteenth century. The genre came into being around 1700 when Gaetano Giulio Zummo, known as Zumbo accepted the commission of French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues to create a likeness of an important medical dissection that was beginning to decompose. Zumbo was a Sicilian abbot who delighted in the creation of wax miniature series “Theatres of Death” boasting names such as “The Plague” (bottom image) and “The Vanity of Human Greatness,” and featuring exactingly rendered dead and tortured bodies. The product of Desnoues’ and Zumbo’s collaboration was the first wax anatomical teaching model, and established the tradition of an artistic/medical partnership in the creation of such tools.
The Venus and her sisters were intended, from their very conception, not only to instruct, but also to delight and elicit the wonder of a popular audience and, beginning with their public debut in the 1790s, they did just that, attracting throngs of both local Tuscans and visitors on the Grand Tour circuit. Their popularity was so great that they ultimately inspired a series of knockoffs—first a series of similar models by the same workshop for Napoleon and Joseph II of Vienna and, later, in series of models, often advertised as “Florentine” (8th image down) or “Parisian” or even automated breathing Venuses that toured Europe, attracting masses of visitors to the popular anatomical displays found in Europe well into the twentieth century. The uncanny allure of these somnambulant, neither-dead-nor-alive women was not lost on surrealist artists such as Paul Delvaux —who cited his visits to the Spitzner Collection (as seen in his painting "Le Musee Spitzner" of 1943, second to bottom image), with its famous breathing Venus as a life and art-changing moment— and Marcel Duchamp, whose enigmatic peepshow Étant donnés (bottom image) seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the paradoxes embodied by such figures...You can find out more about Women's Studies Quarterly by clicking here and more about the "Enchantment" issue by clicking here. You can read my entire "Ode to an Anatomical Venus" by clicking here.
Please note: this piece could simply not exist without the wonderful work of scholars as Roberta Ballestriero, Alessandro Riva, Lucia Dacome, Kathryn Hoffmann, Ludmilla Jordanova, Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Anna Maerker, Rebecca Messbarger, and Roberta Panzanelli. A much more detailed bibliography and list of citations can be found in the article itself. I am entirely indebted to their work in all of my research on this topic.
All images except the bottom four are my own; please click on them to see larger, finer version. Captions, top to bottom:
- "Anatomical Venus" Wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
- The "Venerina" or “Little Venus” anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Described on the museum website thusly: "The agony of a young woman is represented in her last instant of life as she abandons herself to death voluptuously and completely naked. The thorax and abdomen can be opened, allowing the various parts to be disassembled so as to simulate the act of anatomic dissection."
- Detail of the ”Venerina" (Little Venus) anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy
- Anatomical model by Clemente Susini representing ‘deep lymphatic vessels in a female subject’, human hair, wax, 1794, Museum of the History of the University, Pavia, Italy
- "The Slashed Beauty"Wax model with human hair in rosewood and Venetian Glass case; Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790), “La Specola” (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy
- "Slashed Beauty" Wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy, Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
- "Anatomical Venus" Wax wodel with human hair and pearls in rosewood and Venetian glass case, "La Specola" (Museo di Storia Naturale), Florence, Italy, Probably modeled by Clemente Susini (around 1790)
- "Anatomical Venuses" Wax models with human hair in rosewood and Venetian glass cases; Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence, 1781-1786 The Josephinum, Vienna, Austria
- Advertisement for display of Anatomical Venus, Wellcome Library
- "Le Musee Spitzner," Paul Delvaux, 1943
- "Étant Donnés," Marcel Duchamp, 1946–1966, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Image found here
- The Theatre of Death: Plague. Gaetano Giulio Zumbo; 1691-94; sourced here.