In the exquisitely illustrated The Anatomical Venus, Joanna Ebenstein, cofounder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, explores the allure of a female wax figure created in 18th-century Florence with the aim of teaching anatomy to a popular audience. Ebenstein gives us a survey of this bizarre object, a perfect intersection of science and art.
Of all the objects in the medical museum, the Anatomical Venus is the most seductive and confounding. A life-sized, dissectible wax woman with real human hair, glass eyes, and a string of pearls, she was created around 1780 as the centerpiece for the first truly public science museum in Florence, Italy.
At the time of her creation, the Anatomical Venus was seen as an ideal, beautiful and intuitive way to teach a general public about human anatomy without need for dissection; Today she seems utterly bizarre. How could we have changed so much in just over 200 years that this object now seems startlingly beyond comprehension? My new book The Anatomical Venus, attempts to--via a combination of word and image, and drawing on the scholarship of a broad array of historians, cultural theorists, and philosophers--investigate this mystery and to seduce a popular audience into her peculiar history.
The Anatomical Venus has its roots in the Morbid Anatomy blog, which I founded as a research tool to investigate the Anatomical Venus and other denizens of the medical museum for an exhibition at the Alabama Museum of Health Sciences in 2007. Since then, the blog has developed into a meeting place for artists, academics, and people interested in the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture. Two years ago the blog became a museum in Brooklyn where we host exhibitions and events.
The Anatomical Venus is a highly illustrated book of my own photography and images kindly lent to us by museums and collectors around the world. The aim is to bring back into the public consciousness a most seductive, strange and compelling figure: one who confounds and flickers on the edges of our most cherished binary divides: life and death, religion and medicine, beauty and death, affect and science, spectacle and education.
The first and most iconic Anatomical Venus, also known as “the Medici Venus." When her breastplate is lifted, she can be dissected into seven anatomically correct layers, revealing at the final remove a tranquil fetus in her womb. She was created around 1780 as the centerpiece for Florence’s Museum for Physics and Natural History, better known as La Specola, where she can still be seen today. She is one of around 1,400 life-sized waxes on display at La Specola; together, the collection was intended to function as a complete encyclopaedia in wax of the human body for the edification of the general public. This Museum was the pet project of Leopold II, a member of the Viennese Habsburg family who became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765.
Late 18th century half-scale dissected wax Anatomical Venus with real hair and glass eyes, in state of full dissection. She is thought to have been created at the same La Specola in-house workshop that produced the full-scale Venus above, headed by artist Clemente Susini under the scientific guidance of Felice Fontana.
The “Venerina” (“Little Venus”), a life-sized dissectible Anatomical Venus made between 1780-1782 by the workshop of Clemente Susini, can still be seen today at the Museo di Palazzo Poggi in Bologna. She is described on the museum’s website in this way: “The agony of a young woman is represented in her last instant of life as she abandons herself to death voluptuously and completely naked.” This language—and her ecstatic pose--call to mind the many sculptural representations of swooning saints and martyrs which fill the churches of Catholic Italy; Today, it also evokes more profane interpretations.
Anatomical Venus from the Josephinum collection, created around 1780. This is one of a set of 1,192 wax models commissioned in the 1780s by Leopold II’s brother, Emperor Joseph II, and transported over the Alps to Vienna on the backs of mules. She is not demountable; instead, she is in a state of perpetual auto dissection. Like other Anatomical Venuses, she is depicted as if alive rather than dead, and free of pain, blood or gore in order to make her appropriate for--and appealing to--popular audiences. She and other similarly rendered waxes are referred to by some as “slashed beauties” or “dissected graces.”
Wax Anatomical Venuses created by the workshop at La Specola, Florence, 1781–86, as seen at the Josephinum Museum, Vienna, Austria. Each model was produced by an artist working in tandem with and anatomist or natural philosopher. They would begin with an illustration from a trusted anatomical atlas, then model individual elements on cadavers and body parts sourced from a nearby hospital. Although complex piece such as this one might take as many as 200 bodies to create, it was the hope of their makers that such waxes would ultimately render human dissection unnecessary. The models created by the La Specola workshop are still considered to be remarkably anatomically correct today.
Wax Anatomical Venus by the workshop of Clemente Susini in 1794, on view at the Anatomical Museum at the University of Pavia.
Anatomical wax referred to by some as “The Slashed Beauty,” from the workshop of Clemente Susini as seen at La Specola, Florence, Italy.
By the 19th century, Anatomical Venuses were commonly used as centerpieces for anatomical museums and fairground displays that provided education and entertainment for popular audiences. This 19th Century Anatomical Venus, from the collection of the Museum of the History of Medicine of Catalonia in Barcelona, was probably created for such a display.
Anatomical Venuses continued to be manufactured and exhibited well into the 20th century. This dissectible life-sized wax Anatomical Venus—looking like a silent film starlet--was created around 1930 by the wax modeling workshop of Rudolf Pohl, and was exhibited at a fairground museum as part of Oktoberfest 1933 and 1944.
A Breathing Waxwork by Philippe Curtius, uncle or possibly the illegitimate father of Anne-Marie Grosholtz, who went on to become Madame Tussaud. Some believe if was modeled on Madame Du Barry, courtesan and official mistress of Louis the 15th. This piece was created in the 1920s from an original 1767 mold after the original waxwork was destroyed; it can still be seen gently breathing at Madame Tussaud’s, London, its clockwork mechanism replaced by an electric one.