Exquisite anatomy: the art of medical models
August 30, 2006 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Historical anatomy models were a marriage of art and science. From about the 13th to the 19th centuries, exquisite wax models were the state of the art. Florence's La Specola anatomical wax museum houses the works of master artists, such as Ercole Lelli, Anna Morandi, and Clemente Susini. The later years of wax models tended towards the grotesque: moulage and depictions of pathological conditions and physical anomalies. Due to the labor required and delicacy of wax models, papier-mâché became the favored production method in the 19th century, partly due to the ability to dissect the models. Over time, models became more stylized to protect the delicate sensibilities of the public. Today, models are again shocking the public with extreme realism.
posted by madamjujujive (18 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I can recall going into Louis Toussard's Wax Museum in Blackpool as a kid in the sixties, and sneaking into a section of the show called 'Epstein's Anatomy' that was restricted to the over-18's. I would have been 9 or 10 at the time.

The place was filled with wonderful grotesque objects, most of which seemed to be representations of various organs in late stage syphilis.

I think since those days, Louis Toussard's was bought out by Ripleys Believe It or Not and is now a global chain. I do wonder whether the new corporate entity still shows this stuff.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:38 AM on August 31, 2006

Nice posting, thanks!
FYI, I'm a huge fan of La Specola, and have a small series of photos from the museum HERE.
sorry for the "self-post", but I thought it was relevant
posted by numlok at 12:48 AM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Perhaps it's my scientific background, but I wasn't shocked at all by BodyWorlds. It was certainly a good look into the human body, but I actually prefered the dissected-out organs to the ridiculous "art" they made out of some of the cadavers. Those certainly weren't 'extreme realism' at all.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:05 AM on August 31, 2006

I've been trying to figure out why that basement in a seedy Blackpool Wax Museum was called Epstein's Anatomy -- and seemed to be created, at least in part, by Sculptor Jacob Epstein.

A quick Google turned up this:

"Throughout his career Epstein carved himself something of a niche for portrait sculpture -- this was, perhaps, his bread and butter – and some very fine examples can be visited in the National Portrait Gallery. But it was through his larger sculpture that he was at his most expressive, most experimental, but also most vulnerable. An epic work entitled “Jacob and the Angel” (1940 - now in the Tate Collection) spent its first pitiful years on display in a Blackpool waxworks, gawped at amongst a basement of ‘anatomical displays’. It’s not easy for us to understand the reasons that led time and time again to his condemnation -- where today we see thought and understanding his contemporary audience found obscenity and disgrace."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:11 AM on August 31, 2006

There was a collection of medical wax models from the turn of the century that were lost somewhere in Russia for 80 years. When it was rediscovered it went on tour and I saw it in Stockholm, getting grossed out by the horrible syphilis and other strange cases. A sign above a chair in every room encouraged visitors to have a seat if they felt faint. It was not until I saw the realistic body "cut open" to show all parts of a male doctors hand assisting in the delivery of triplets - basically by getting in there and grabbing one - that I suddenly had to sit down.
posted by dabitch at 1:18 AM on August 31, 2006

Interesting stuff.
posted by caddis at 4:47 AM on August 31, 2006

Fascinating, wonderful post. The wax models are astonishing, sometimes horrifying and sometimes, well... just beautiful. They seem so lovingly crafted. I'd never seen any of this stuff. Thanks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:10 AM on August 31, 2006

They have one of these at Obscura in the East Village (presumably for sale). It's in a big wood-and-glass case and utterly nightmarish-- and so fascinating that you can't look away.
posted by hermitosis at 7:12 AM on August 31, 2006

Numlok, I can't thank you enough for adding your pictures - they make the post. I love this beautiful lady. Oh, and self-linking in threads is OK, particularly when so relevant to the topic!

Chrisamiller, I am looking forward to seeing Body Worlds in Boston soon - I don't think it will be too gross, either, but apparently, it has been evoking strong reactions. Gross because they are "dead people"? Pffft. So are mummies.

I share many of the sentiments expressed here - I find this gorgeous and compelling, yet rather eerie and macabre. That is particularly so for the ones focusing on pathology - eek. Dabitch, your experience gives good testimony to the realism of the wax models!
posted by madamjujujive at 8:35 AM on August 31, 2006

On my insistence my wife and I spent an afternoon at the Museo di Storia Naturale on our honeymoon. I highly recommend it. It's full of quasi-scientific artifacts from previous centuries, much of it completely wrong on the science but fascinating for its craftsmanship and insight into early Western concepts of the universe. Gallileo's skeletal finger under a glass dome is one example of the type of display you just can't find in American museums of natural history.

The was anatomical models are shocking. They are realistic enough to send squeamish visitors like me running out of the room (although I was already affected by the display of pre-anesthetic surgical instruments).

This article, "Florentine 18th-century wax anatomical models as inspiration for Italian horror", is important:
Clearly, these anatomical wax models continue to have an impact outside of their original intentions.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

mjjj goodness
posted by matteo at 10:02 AM on August 31, 2006

Great post!
posted by small_ruminant at 10:39 AM on August 31, 2006

Wow, again I'm wondering why in hell I never wound up in medical school....the human body is absolutely astonishing to behold, even (or perhaps especially?) in simulation. Thx all.
posted by pax digita at 4:22 PM on August 31, 2006

mjjj, you never disappoint! The thin line between beautiful and grotesque reminds me of the Mutter Museum here in Philly.
posted by soyjoy at 8:48 PM on August 31, 2006

Thanks for the great link, Chinese Jet Pilot. (btw, you have some fun things on your site. Welcome to mefi I hope you will make some posts)

soyjoy, my fellow piner for some frog marching karma, good to see you around, you have been too scarce of late. Thanks for the reminder that I need to get me back to the Mutter Mseum next time I am in Philly.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:50 PM on September 1, 2006

Not sure how I missed this (and finding it is testament to the 'best of' tournament being a justified endeavour in my book) but I think it's a great post thanks madamjujujive.

We've had a couple of shows/miniseries about von Hagen (bodyworlds). I get the feeling this guy doesn't leave observers on the fence - love/hate are the usual categories regarding his work. I am in the latter camp for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I think the guy is a nutter - merely a performance artist who is (kind of) exploiting families of deceased people and 'selling' spectacle that more properly belongs under the big top with other sideshow accoutrements. Distasteful is the word that comes to mind.

Secondly, I've spent a lot of time with variously wounded, incised and 'open' bodies which didn't bother me at all because we were just trying to make things better - there was a reason for the 'display'. But I had to change channel for most of the bodyworlds shows because I found it disturbing; not in a squeamish way but in a kind of embarrassed, 'what is the point' of spectacularizing such a fragile, beautiful machine kind of way. It's the same reason I look away when they show CPR -- it's such a personal thing that I feel shouldn't be made the fodder of media. I don't see bodyworks as particularly educational (and maybe I'm a bit wrong on this part, I guess I don't know well enough) and I'm much more of the opinion that painters, sculptors, etchers and other artisans (including wax modellers) render works that are more fittingly described as art. [0.02 kerchink!]

(now to get stuck into the wax links) Thanks MJJ !
posted by peacay at 8:48 PM on September 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the comment, peacay - I will be eager to compare my reactions whenever I get myself into Boston to see it. Most definitly, he has the air of the huckster about him. I am not sure how I will react to his work. I am totally out of the medicine/science area - so for me, it may be fascinating. I would guess you are right about the artistry.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:23 PM on September 1, 2006

I always liked the anatomical models of pregnant women. Gory!
posted by juliarothbort at 2:21 PM on September 26, 2006

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