What is Healthy Curiosity? – Italian Wax Anatomical Models

Posted: June 11, 2017 in Uncategorized





Specola Head


Museo La Specola
Florence, Italy

  1. A. Anderson says:

    It’s interesting to see how much Anatomical knowledge improved once the general public started to find dissection acceptable.

    • As with everything else, it’s not entirely simple. As the article by Jonathan Simon points out, dissection and anatomical exhibition were highly controversial and sat at the intersection of numerous conflicting beliefs and practices. Part of what make dissection questionable was the face that it was considered ignominious. There was generally a shortage of bodies do dissection, as dissection was a form of punishment – meant to prolong suffering even after death. Consequently, one of the only means of obtaining bodies was through the behest of the government. This sole official channel of obtaining bodies made cadavers so valuable that persons began committing random murders in order to sell the bodies of the victims to science. Here, see the historical research on Burke and Hare. The former’s name actually became a popular slang term for murdering to dissect.

      In the early nineteenth century, body snatching was rife because the only corpses available for medical study were those of hanged murderers. With the Anatomy Act of 1832, however, the bodies of those who died destitute in workhouses were appropriated for dissection.

  2. branden frieden says:

    I’m blown away at how accurate and amazing these wax figures look. They almost look better than most of the models we have today, probably because they were extremely expensive and made with extreme detail vs the mass produced models we have today. Were these figures used to educate surgeons and doctors? or were they just for show and exhibition?

    • There’s still a lot of debate over just how these models were perceived and how they were meant to be used, or if there ever was a single function for which they were intended. Though the Jonathan Simon article discussed wax models and not actual human remains, his article remains highly indicated of the ambivalent reaction to these models, both in the past and today. For the record though, the models seen in the images above were almost certainly intended strictly for the use in medical schools. Now, however, what were once considered leading medical schools have now been converted into museums, whereupon these models become more accessible to the general public.

  3. Kayla Kingsley says:

    Seems like the Medici were in a little bit of everything in Florence. I’m a pre-med student, but lately I’ve been considering veterinarian studies and research and I noticed that they have models of not only humans, but of animals to study as well! This is awesome! Surprised I didn’t hear about it when I was touring Florence.

    • Persons don’t hear about these ‘best kept secrets’ very often. I have a few friends who are veritable connoisseurs of anatomical and morbidity studies. They tours such museums regularly. Can’t say I don’t aspire to join them.

      For the record, by the time these models, at the Museo La Specola, were created, the Medicis had been out of power for about half a century. The Medici dynasty ought really to be seen as a Renaissance and Baroque dynasty, whereas the models seen here are more to be associated with Enlightenment. Not that there was no anatomical models during the Baroque Era, but they bore all the characteristics of the period – flamboyance, grotesquerie, odd juxtapositions.

  4. Anurag Tripathy says:

    It feels like the seeming obsession to dissect the human body may have been driven by a more philosophical need more than anything else. Could these dissections and models have been used to explore human behavioural patterns, characteristics, personality etc? I know that phrenology as a serious study arose as a consequence to these sort of activities.

    • We’ll talk about phrenology if we ever get to Hegel. Not sure if that will happen. Italian wax models straddle different eras, so it’s hard to make any generalizations about them. But as we get into the Enlightenment, studies of human ‘attitudes’ become increasingly important. We see this already in the use of masks in Italian comedy and character types in Vico. While these are quite exaggerated, the Enlightenment moves toward more less strained depictions of human types.

  5. Jordan Franchina says:

    The way that the fourth picture is positioned and laid out makes it seem almost erotic. Were these wax figures done out of obsession, a form of art to show the beauty under the skin? Or was it done in the name of education/science?

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