Why these anatomical models are not disgusting (2023)

Art history

(Image credit:

Madame Tussauds Archives, London. Photo Joanna Ebenstein


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Nightmares in wax

A tiny foetus, its foot kicking out of a womb; an intestine piled up next to a lifeless figure, her torso ripped open from the string of pearls on her neck to her abdomen. Our natural reaction is to recoil with disgust, to dismiss these eerie waxworks as freak show objects. Yet to do so is to misunderstand them, says the author of a new book. “They do say something different to us today from what they meant at the time,” says Joanna Ebenstein, co-founder of [the Morbid Anatomy Museum](http://morbidanatomymuseum.org/) in New York. Her book [The Anatomical Venus](http://www.thamesandhudson.com/The_Anatomical_Venus/9780500252185) reveals how a figure that provokes an uneasy reaction in viewers now was once a popular tool for instruction. This Anatomical Venus, produced by the workshop at La Specola in Florence between 1784 and 1788, is displayed in her original rosewood and Venetian glass case at the Josephinum, Vienna, Austria. (Credit: Josephinum, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Skin deep

Created between 1780 and 1782, the original anatomical Venus by Clemente Susini (pictured) can still be seen at La Specola – the public science museum founded by Leopold II in Florence. Also known as ‘the Medici Venus’, the life-size wax figure has real human hair, and can be dissected into seven anatomically correct layers. She spawned numerous copies, referred to as Slashed Beauties or Dissected Graces and also displayed in medical museums. “Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a gentle smile or an ecstatic downcast gaze,” writes Ebenstein in The Anatomical Venus. “One idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten satin cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection; another is crowned with a golden tiara, while one further wears a silk ribbon tied in a bow around a dangling entrail.” (Credit: Museo di Storia Naturale Università di Firenze, Zoologica, ‘La Specola’, Italy/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Fairground attraction

It’s a world away from Madame Tussauds. No grinning faces to be photographed in selfies; no celebrity glamour or statesmanlike poses. These are waxworks that both intrigue and repulse: models that seem to hover somewhere between freak show and operating theatre. Ebenstein aims to place them in their cultural context, looking at the history of the anatomical Venus and finding out where it fits in the 21st Century. “Since their creation in late-18th-Century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. In the 21st Century, they also confound, flickering on the edges of medicine and myth, votive and vernacular, fetish and fine art,” she writes in her opening chapter. “How can we understand today an object that is at once a seductive representation of ideal female beauty and an explicit demonstration of the inner workings of the body? How can we make sense of an artefact that was once equally at home in the fairground and the medical museum?” This life-size 40-piece anatomical Venus is from Pierre Spitzner’s 19th-Century collection. (Credit: Université de Montpellier anatomical collection/Photo Marc Dantan/Courtesy of Thames & Hudson Ltd)

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Cultural curiosity

Ebenstein had to wrestle with her own feelings when she first encountered the Venus. “It’s so confusing, and it has such power when you see it, it’s hard not to be drawn in,” she tells BBC Culture. “I was trying to figure out how to make sense of it – it looks so bizarre to us now. Of all the forms an anatomical teaching tool could take, how come it was that one?” She overcame her initial reaction by reading about the Venus and looking at figures in different settings. “I went to other kinds of museums and churches to try and understand the context of the culture that created it, which made me start thinking about it in a very different way from most people in the medical museum world,” she says. “My background is intellectual history, so when I look at an object that looks strange to us today, my first thought is ‘Why? Did it look strange to people at the time? What does it say about us that it now looks strange?’” (Credit: Josephinum, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Venus in pearls

Ebenstein realised that the Venus was not an oddity: it was truly a product of its time. Leopold II founded La Specola after becoming the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1765; he aimed to educate Florentines in the empirical observation of natural laws and challenge the more irrational practices of the Roman Catholic church. His new museum, Ebenstein argues, “would make available to the general public the rare and valuable cultural artefacts previously secreted in the Medici Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder”. In a period when the study of the natural world included what we know today as science, aesthetics and metaphysics, she claims, “the Medici Venus was a perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment values of her time, in which human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge, and in which to know the human body was to know the mind of God.” Venerina (Little Venus), is a 1782 life-size dissectible wax model created by the workshop of Clemente Susini at La Specola for Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy. (Credit: Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Universita’ di Bologna. Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Dissecting beauty

In a bid to depict humans in a more realistic way, visual artists of the Renaissance carried out their own dissections – more even than anatomists of the era. According to Ebenstein, Leonardo da Vinci “is said to have dissected more than 100 bodies, and famously ‘sketched cadavers he had dissected with his own hand’”. One key anatomical text of 1543, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), was illustrated with woodcuts “thought to be by Titian’s studio in Venice”. That overlap of disciplines was the background for the anatomical Venus. “One of the things that makes the Venus so hard for us to understand is that we’ve now divided up all those things in ways that wasn’t divided in the time that it was made,” Ebenstein tells BBC Culture. “We have this division between art and science, and between religion and medicine, that didn’t exist at that time.” (Credit: Josephinum, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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One foot in the grave

The creators of the ‘Slashed Beauties’ aimed to bring anatomy out of the graveyard. “Most of anatomical knowledge was derived from dead bodies, and that’s not appropriate for a popular audience,” says Ebenstein. “So how do you create an object that can take something from the grave and the cadavers it took to make it, but make people forget that, or not know it, and make them seduced by it? A lot of her beauty has to do with that, it’s essential to making her a popular object.” There is a quote in the book from the 18th Century anatomical illustrator Arnaud-Éloi Gautier D’Agoty: “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics, but how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?” The waxworks harnessed aesthetics to reach a larger audience. “The popular part is really important, and I think that part really baffles people,” says Ebenstein. “They assume the Venus was made for doctors – but it wasn’t, and in that way it wasn’t made for an audience of men the way some feminists expect it to be – it was made for men, women and children, that’s really essential to understanding it.” This 1746 mezzotint of a fashionably coiffed anatomised woman, L’Ange Anatomique (The Flayed Angel), was created by Arnaud-Éloi’s father Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty. (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

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Sleeping beauty

However uncanny they might seem to us, the wax figures were primarily teaching tools. According to Ebenstein, “Each pristine wax model at the museum was the product of the careful study of cadavers that were delivered from the nearby Santa Maria Nuova hospital.” They remain close to life. “Over 200 years after their creation, La Specola’s waxworks are still considered remarkably accurate, some of them demonstrating anatomical structures that had yet to be named or described at the time of their making.” Yet in making them more attractive than a cadaver, the waxwork sculptors were also creating art works. As Ebenstein argues, the anatomical Venus evoked “a long history of paintings and sculptures of placid, idealised nudes”. And that’s where the human detail that unnerves us came in. “She is designed to charm in every detail: her glistening glass eyes are rimmed with real eye-lashes, her bared throat is bound by a string of pearls, and she boasts a lustrous cascade of human hair.” This figure is known as ‘the Sleeping Beauty’: a 1925 replica of the original piece from 1767, it’s a breathing wax model by Swiss physician and master wax sculptor Philippe Curtius. (Credit: Madame Tussauds Archives, London. Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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The anatomy and the ecstasy

Yet for Ebenstein, the anatomical Venus was not a figure that had been sexualised. “Some feminists have a kneejerk response to looking at this – I would argue that any fetish element didn’t exist at the time.” Instead, she argues, the figures tapped into a tradition of religious sculpture. “Susini, who made the most famous of the Venuses, also made waxes of a dying Christ that were beautiful.” When we interpret the Venus in this way, she believes, we’re revealing our own cultural biases. “That expression on her face that we read as erotic today, I do not believe it was seen that way at the time – because otherwise it wouldn’t be on every saint in the church,” she says. “Something has changed in us; we can’t see anything without reading a prurient intent into it. I really don’t believe that’s how they were understood at the time.” In the book, Ebenstein picks out a sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s life-sized white marble masterpiece, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–52) at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (pictured). “It is likely that a different understanding of the ecstatic than our own influenced Venus’s reception,” she writes. “The ecstatic was understood at that time not merely as a profane, sensual experience, but as an expression of the sacred: a mystical experience.” (Credit: Alamy)

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A question of faith

“What it draws on, the language it draws on, is so much broader than you would think, and that helps to make sense of it,” claims Ebenstein. Attempting to unpick specific influences can be a thankless task. “There are all these strange overlaps between Catholicism and medicine, in this desire to preserve and effigise the body. Because the body has all of this meaning: in medicine, it has meaning because it tells us about the world, and in religion it has meaning because it’s a healing tool. It’s a very complicated terrain which is difficult to untangle.” The Venus appears at a time when the two are beginning to unspool. “You have these two different philosophies, science and medicine versus religion, that are attempting to tell us the answers about where we fit in the universe, what life is for, what consciousness is, what the body is, and how we deal with death and disease. Venus is a moment when it’s in both hands: the torch is being passed from one to the other.” (Credit: Josephinum, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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Hidden beliefs

Yet it was to be a long time before the torch had been passed. “I think this particular way of looking at the world lingered on longer than we think, and you can see that by looking at old medical atlases,” says Ebenstein. “Up until the early 19th Century, you still see memento mori imagery in books that were ostensibly about bones, or childbirth. To me, that suggests these ideas are still in circulation – whether scientists believed them, or felt they had to include them just because it’s the way people need it explained in order to understand, I don’t know.” At that time, she argues, medical imagery as we now understand it was not just a diagrammatic understanding. “It was also about man’s place in nature, about the nature of life and death, and about God. I feel that this idea we have now about ‘proper’ anatomical imagery, which should be devoid of extraneous detail, it shouldn’t have beautiful hair or a beautiful face – it should be as neutral and diagrammatic as possible – didn’t really come into being until Gray’s Anatomy in 1858. That changed how we start thinking about the correct ways to depict the dead body – it shifted in a big way.” Our own ‘objective’ scientific viewpoint remains as filtered as the beliefs of the 18th-Century Florentines. “I think we’re still within that world. That’s now our style, and it looks invisible to us, but I expect in 100 years’ time people will look at it and think that it says something culturally about who we are now.” This dissectable Venus was created by the workshop of Rudolph Pohl, Dresden, Germany, circa 1930. (Credit: Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlumg Puppentheater/Schaustellerei, Munich)

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Bodily function

By overcoming our initial reactions to figures like the Spitzner Anatomical Venus (shown here in a different stage of dissection), Ebenstein believes we can learn more about our own hidden cultural beliefs. “The Venus has many interpretations – some people find her deeply offensive or horrible – but there are ways to have a more nuanced understanding. I would be pleased if people came away saying ‘oh I thought this was disgusting, but now I understand that my feeling of disgust is more about who we are today than about the intention of the makers at the time.’” And the Venus embodies an approach that Ebenstein thinks we could benefit from now: “a multi-disciplinary attitude, in which aesthetics and artistic expression and truth in a scientific way could all work together to draw in and engage an audience, and make them want to learn”. Because, as she says, “we all have bodies, and we all think about them and we’re all afraid of them and intrigued by them”. (Credit: Université de Montpellier anatomical collection/Photo Marc Dantan/Courtesy of Thames & Hudson Ltd)

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