Visual Culture

The Romantic, Macabre History of the Anatomical Venus

Ian Shank
Jan 29, 2018 7:35PM

Venerina (Little Venus), life-sized dissectible wax model created by the workshop of Clemente Susini at Florence’s La Specola for Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy, 1782. Courtesy of Museo di Palazzo Poggi - Università di Bologna. Photo © Joanna Ebenstein.

Supine in her windowed coffin, she appears not only real, but alive. A chain of pearls rings her neck. Real human hair snakes across her glossy flesh. But peel back her wax breastplate, and new layers come into focus. There is her heart. Her pancreas. Her liver. Across her sculpted organs, silk or linen fibers serve as nerves and fine blood vessels. And finally, nestled like a pristine puzzle piece, a tiny unborn fetus curls in eternal repose.

Created between 1780 and 1782 in the workshop of master ceroplastician (or wax artist) Clemente Susini and his director Felice Fontana, the so-called “Anatomical Venus” defies easy categorization. To her patrons, her value was equal parts educational and artistic. Commissioned by then-Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II as the centerpiece of Florence’s first public science museum—the Museum for Physics and Natural History, widely known as La Specola—she was intended both to instruct the general public and render human dissection obsolete. As Fontana himself later noted, “If we succeeded in reproducing in wax all the marvels of our animal machine, we would no longer need to conduct dissections, and students, physicians, surgeons, and artists would be able to find their desired models in a permanent, odor-free, and incorruptible state.”

The face of a life-sized dissectible wax Anatomical Venus from the Spitzner collection shown in its intact form. Photographed for The Anatomical Venus. Courtesy of Université de Montpellier, collections anatomiques. Photo © Marc Danton.

The face of a life-sized dissectible wax Anatomical Venus from the Spitzner collection shown in its dissected state. Photographed for The Anatomical Venus. Courtesy of Université de Montpellier, collections anatomiques. Photo © Marc Danton.


So groundbreaking was the Anatomical Venus’s internal design that some of her bodily structures were still unnamed at the time of their making. Yet she was more than a teaching tool for the masses. At a time when emulating the idealized human form was the ultimate mark of an artist, her verisimilitude was peerless. After three centuries of Medici rule in Florence—a regime defined by its artistic and financial decadence—the coronation of the Enlightenment-minded Leopold II marked the beginning of a new era in which masterpieces should be as scientifically instructive as they were aesthetically beautiful. With her seven removable, or “demountable,” layers, the Anatomical Venus was just that: a perfect synthesis of Enlightenment inquiry and Florentine artistry.

Although life-sized anatomical wax figures had begun cropping up in Paris and Bologna in the early 18th century, the Anatomical Venus was engineered to be the genre-defining exemplar of what would later become known as “Slashed Beauties” or “Dissected Graces.” Under the tenure of Fontana and Susini, these waxen women (and the very occasional man) would be frozen in various stages of dissection, each illustrating a different bodily system in a way that was readily comprehensible to even the most unschooled viewer. Of the more than 2,500 wax models produced by Fontana’s workshop between 1771 and 1893, approximately 1,400 pieces can still be found at La Specola. Eighteen are whole, life-sized figures—yet only the Anatomical Venus is fully demountable.

To modern sensibilities, the dissonance between the idealized sensuality of Susini’s work and its role as a medical and educational tool is visceral, even macabre. But according to Joanna Ebenstein, author of The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic (2016), this tension results from today’s urge to draw clear, strict lines between science and art, reason and spirituality. “Science does not simply uncover truth, it is also a culturally constructed, normative activity that reflects the ideals of its time,” writes Ebenstein. “Only a little over two hundred years ago [the Anatomical Venus] was the perfect tool to teach human anatomy to the public; today she is bizarre—an alluring, life-like female wax model in a state of ambiguous ecstasy with her inner organs on graphic display.”

The most iconic dissectible wax Anatomical Venus— also known as the ‘Demountable Venus’ and the ‘Medici Venus’—from the workshop of Clemente Susini at La Specola, Florence, Italy, 1780–82. Courtesy of Museo La Specola, the Natural History Museum of Florence. Photo © Joanna Ebenstein.

One way to understand this dramatic shift in public perspective is to look at the changing role of the artist in society. Even before the birth of the Anatomical Venus, many leading artists were professional anatomists in their own right. Leonardo da Vinci is known to have based his sketches on real cadavers, ultimately dissecting more than 100 bodies in his lifetime. His contemporary, Michelangelo Buonarroti, is said to have accepted a commission for Florence’s Church of the Holy Ghost in exchange for a payment in cadavers.

In the case of Michelangelo, the involvement of church authorities was also no aberration. Like art and anatomy, science and religion were often understood as a complementary rather than contradictory means of understanding the world. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV—better known as the “Enlightenment Pope”—founded the world’s first wax anatomical museum in Bologna, a precursor to Susini and Fontana’s workshop in Florence. So committed was the pope to wedding scientific and ecclesiastical practices that he required alleged miracles to be confirmed using scientific methodology. Later, he went so far as to exhort his flock to donate their kin, “dead by whatever means,” for dissection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many anatomists of the time understood and practiced their craft as an expression of religious devotion. As Ebenstein writes, the Anatomical Venus was created at a moment in which “the human being…was understood to be the pinnacle of God’s creation and a microcosm of the universe; to know the human body was, in a sense, to know the world and the mind of God.”

Standing pregnant woman from side and seated woman with interns open. From Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty’s Anatomie des parties de la génération de l'homme et de la femme ... jointe a l'angéologie de tout le corps humain, e a ce qui concerne la grossesse et les accouchemens, 1773. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Ivory anatomical model of a pregnant female with removable parts possibly used by obstetric specialists or midwives to provide reassurance for pregnant women, 17th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

This principle was not lost on the Anatomical Venus’s many visitors. By the time of the figure’s public unveiling, Florence had already become an essential destination for tourists on the Italian leg of the Grand Tour; they flocked to see Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1486) in the Medici country villa and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) in the Uffizi Gallery. In this context, it is clear that Leopold II chose to contribute his very own Venus as a way of adding La Specola to the city’s list of must-see sites.

As with the city’s other iconic masterpieces, many tourists recounted feeling a kind of mystical reverence when confronted with the Anatomical Venus’s ecstatic gaze. “It is not possible to contemplate the structure of the human body without feeling convinced of some divine power,” wrote Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, official portraitist of Marie Antoinette, after viewing the Anatomical Venus in 1792. “Despite what a few miserable philosophers have dared to say, in M. Fontana’s laboratory one kneels and believes.”

Today, the Anatomical Venus has no shortage of acolytes who make the pilgrimage to La Specola—an eclectic mix of artists, academics, and connoisseurs of the uncanny. Despite the diversity of these visitors’ interests, however, the most essential impact of the Venus remains the same. “Perhaps the draw of the Anatomical Venus comes from an unspoken, intuited resolution of our own divided nature,” Ebenstein writes. “An unconscious recognition of another avenue abandoned, in which beauty and science, religion and medicine, soul and body, might be one.”

Ian Shank