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.”