Saturday, August 06, 2005


The House of Wax

In today's Times, Eleanor Updale takes a fascinating tour of La Specola, a venerable museum of waxwork cadavers in Florence:

The sheer quantity of these beautiful models overwhelms you. The museum has more than 1,000, most of them on display. In addition to the full-size bodies there are detailed explorations of individual organs, of heads, torsos, even cross-sections of babies in the womb. Each exhibit is an object of beauty in its own right, the work of 18th and early 19th-century artists schooled in the same traditions of Florentine craftsmanship that made the city’s churches some of the wonders of the world. So around an explosion of intestines a figure of pure serenity sleeps like the effigy of a marble saint. But the models were commissioned for a practical purpose. The sculptors worked in collaboration with anatomists to produce accurate reference tools for medical students, thereby keeping the dissection of real human cadavers to a minimum.... This, possibly the first free public museum, is paved with terracotta tiles, originally sealed with red paint. Over the years visitors’ feet have worn the paint away, showing exactly where people have stopped and stared. The huge shark is obviously a favourite, but by far the biggest hit has long been the display of wax models of female genitalia alongside the voluptuous form of a naked Venus complete with flowing hair, pearl necklace and trim fingernails.

Taken behind the scenes, high up in the building, I stood in the dilapidated remains of the 18th-century observatory from which the museum takes its name. Surrounded by the crumbling forms of fantastic stone beasts that support the roof, I was allowed to hold the lifesize model of a newborn baby. It should have been repellent. The skin was slit and peeled back to expose the liver and digestive tract, and the head was convincingly coated with soft hair apparently still moist and matted with the fluids of childbirth. Yet the face was so delicate, the chubby limbs so peacefully relaxed, that it was impossible not to cradle him like a real child.

In the course of researching the phrenology chapter of The Trouble With Tom, I came across similar examples of this kind of craftsmanship; the old phrenology store of Fowler & Wells used to offer for sale complete wax anatomical models for upwards of $1000 -- serious money in 1850s. That should give you some sense of the sheer level of labor and craft involved in these.

Inevitably, the showmen eventually took over what the med students began: probably the closest modern equivalent to the resulting sensationalism is "Professor" Gunther Von Hagen's Body Worlds exhibit. (Even his shaky academic title is prime Victorian humbug.) I saw it when it was in London, and I'm sure some subtle scientific purpose was achieved by creating a superhuman-sized cadaver posed as if playing basketball.

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