In the 18th century, medical students and the general public learned about the insides of the human body through a tool that to 21st-century eyes likely appears shocking or offensive. Known today as Anatomical Venuses, these wax figures of women were life-sized and fully dissectible, with their removable organs completely exposed to all, while their faces were kept intact with beautiful, oddly serene features. Looking at images of them immediately raises all sorts of questions, many of which are examined and answered in a new book by Joanna Ebenstein, the co-founder of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. Published by DAP (Distributed Art Publishers Inc.), The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic dives into the history and meaning of these enigmatic female figures through a comprehensive and well-researched study, richly illustrated with images both alluring and unsettling.
As Ebenstein chronicles, full-sized female anatomical wax models first emerged in the early 18th century, with surgeons and artists alike publicly exhibiting them — at times, for a viewing fee — as interest in anatomy swelled during the Renaissance. Some of the most detailed and finely crafted came out of La Specola, a workshop of Florence’s Museum for Physics and Natural History. One of its ceroplasticians, or wax artists, Clemente Susini, produced in the 1780s what is perhaps the most renowned of them: known as the Medici Venus, she boasts glass eyes with real eyelashes, human hair, and seven dissectible layers of organs, apparently setting the standard by which people judged all subsequent Anatomical Venuses. Her pose drew from those in Renaissance paintings, recalling the idealized figures of Botticelli’s Venus and of Titian’s reclining Venus of Urbino.
It’s eerie now to see a woman sprawled out, innards revealed and subject to our gaze, but Ebenstein explains that these Venuses embodied ideas of the time related to aesthetics but also to theology and philosophy, and man’s place within the universe.
“Only a little over two hundred years ago she 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,” Ebenstein writes in her introduction. “Perhaps she could only be understood for a brief time, a time when it was still possible for religion, art, philosophy, and science to coexist peacefully.” To be specific, in the case of the Medici Venus, the gleaming female kept in a rosewood case with Venetian glass “was the perfect embodiment of the Enlightenment values of her time, in which human anatomy was understood as a reflection of the world and the pinnacle of divine knowledge, and in which to know the human body was to know the mind of God.”
Life-sized, male wax models did exist, but not in such a detailed, idealized fashion, and many were simply skinless. Depicting the female body in anatomical illustrations or through anatomical models was also a tradition that predated the Anatomical Venus; Ebenstein surveys some precursors, from fugitive sheets to “anatomical manikins” — palm-sized, dissectible figures carved simply out of wood or ivory. The full-sized, beautifully crafted wax models were also just practical and convenient teaching tools that eliminated the need for cadavers, which were much messier to handle and often difficult to procure.
The illustrations that fill the pages of The Anatomical Venus are fascinating on their own — it would be easy to just flip through the publication to scrutinize them — but Ebenstein’s texts should not be missed. She provides incredibly extensive context to all angles of her subject: you’ll receive a brief history on human dissection and how it became a kind of public spectacle; learn about the history and diverse uses and meanings of wax; have an overview of medical museums; and even read about agalmatophilia — a section that includes the creepy case of Carl Tanzler and the corpse of a female patient he preserved.
But in the end, this book is about Anatomical Venuses, and the examples Ebenstein discusses are astounding to learn about. I was especially struck by a number owned by the French doctor Pierre Spitzner (whose collection is now at the University of Montpellier), which date to the second half of the 19th century: one was a wax automaton, featuring a Venus who “breathed,” with a rising and falling chest; another is of a girl in an impeccably white nightgown undergoing a caesarean section, with four distinctly male hands prodding her revealed organs, bizarrely attached to no bodies — phantom hands, complete with white cuffs and the sleeves of black jackets to add an extra layer of eeriness. Such models are particularly thought-provoking, complicating the history of the Anatomical Venus, with details that seem less bent on educating the viewer and existing to simply dazzle — or arouse — the viewer.