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The Lasting Influence of the Waxen Venus on Studies of Anatomy

Modern constructions of beauty and biological race were heavily influenced by the study, replication, and measurement of classical sculpture in eighteenth century Europe.

Anatomical Venus: Wax anatomical figure of a reclining woman, Florence, Italy (image from the Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia).

What is the relationship between sculpture, medicine, and the construction of biological race? The answer may lie in early modern European anatomy museums. In the eighteenth century, anatomy was often taught to European medical students through waxen figurines called ceraioli created by trained ceroplasticians, or wax artists. It is at this time that outer beauty became more closely tied to interior anatomy.

The instructive use of beautiful waxen women for Enlightenment-era medical educations is explored in depth within Joanna Ebenstein‘s book The Anatomical Venus, previously reviewed by Claire Voon for Hyperallergic. As Ebenstein notes, the most famous of these wax models was the “Medici Venus” created in the 1780s by famed Italian ceroplastician Clemente Susini. Susini was inspired by Botticelli’s and Titian’s artistic depictions of Venus — artists who were themselves inspired by earlier Greek and Roman illustrations of the Venus pudica (“modest Venus”) type and ancient depictions of the birth of Venus. The most famous of these was the “Venus Rising from the Sea” made by the famed Greek painter Apelles in the 5th century BCE. In his work, Susini purposefully mixed alluring sculpture, painting, and anatomical models to create captivating waxen figures for male medical students to study.

Wall painting from Pompeii of Venus rising from the sea on a scallop shell, believed to be a copy of the motif of Aphrodite Anadyomene (“Venus Rising From the Sea”) popularized by the Greek painter Apelles of Kos (image by Stephen Haynes via Wikimedia)

The study of anatomy had become popularized again during the Italian Renaissance, at a time when classical art, sculpture, and texts were also being feted. In an article about anatomical wax figures, Corinna Wagner, an associate professor of visual culture at the University of Exeter, notes the new links between inner and outer corporality that began to shape the European understanding of the body at the time:

The rise of anatomy in medicine brought about a reimagining of the relationship between the body’s exterior and its interior, along with a wider reconfiguring of surface and depth. The aesthetics of transparency prioritized true-to-life or naturalistic styles in poetry, plays, and painting as a means of excavating ‘truth’… Known individually by such names as the Medici Venus, the Slashed Beauties, the Dissected Graces (Florence), and “Venerina” or Little Venus (Bologna), these figures are a particularly fascinating embodiment of anatomical realism and a classical visual idiom that emphasized perfection and beauty.

Links between 18th-century anatomical models and classical sculpture were purposefully strong. In her book, Malleable Anatomies: Models, Makers, and Material Culture in Eighteenth Century Italy, Lucia Dacome, an associate professor in the history of medicine at the University of Toronto who specializes in early modern medical history, notes that classical sculpture was particularly influential at the Institute of Sciences in Bologna, founded in 1711:

Classical sculpture similarly defined the parameters for judging the beauty and perfection of the models of the anatomy room: when, in the mid-1740s, Francesco Maria Zanotti announced the completion of the female and male wax figures in the Institute’s Commentarii, he remarked that the statues were so beautiful that they emulated the zeal of ancient sculptors.

It was the Italian painter and wax sculptor Ercole Lelli (1702–1766) who introduced a curriculum wherein students drew the human body by candlelight, studied sculpture by daylight, and then examined anatomical parts in the anatomy chamber. There had early on been a cast collection used by students for drawing and teaching that was expanded by Lelli. And as Dacome remarks upon, this earlier collection included Vatican-approved casts of the Apollo of the Belvedere, Venus de’ Medici, the Laocoön, and many other classical sculptures from Rome, many from the vast Vatican art collection. The anatomy chamber had eight wax statues, muscles, and bones crafted by Lelli and two other sculptors.

Clemente Susini’s dissectible Medici Venus (ca 1780–82) (photo © Joanna Ebenstein, courtesy of Museo La Specola, the Natural History Museum of Florence)

The 18th century was a formative time for taxonomies and the attempted categorization of man. Early theories of biological race would be heavily influenced by both artists and anatomists. The idea that facial angles could separate out White from Black bodies was itself developed by Dutch anatomist and artist Petrus Camper (1722–1789). As I have previously discussed, Camper drew heavily on the aesthetic ideals of beauty espoused by art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He believed that when a vertical line created a 100-degree angle with a corresponding horizontal line, the ideal facial dimension had been achieved. This idealized facial dimension was exemplified by the famed statue the “Apollo of the Belvedere” (ca. 120–140 CE). Camper’s faith in craniometry had been pulled in part from Winckelmann, but was developed to show a spectrum of head ranges from ape to the Apollo of the Belvedere.

The anatomy of the “Moor” was a point of particular interest. The Prussian King Frederick II had settled a number of “Hessians” outside the German city of Kassel following the American Revolution, along with at least 31 Black soldiers. Jeannette Eileen Jones, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska, explores the impact of this settlement in her research on the Black diaspora in Germany. She notes Frederick established a “colony of Africans” outside Kassel at Wilhelmshöhe, which functioned as a kind of observatory for witnessing and studying Black bodies. Jones notes that here “scientists could study the ‘customs and anatomy’ of the residents” but that most died of tuberculosis or suicide not long thereafter.

The Adonis drawings from a catalogue (1850?) created by Antonio Sarti, called Signor Sarti’s Florentine anatomical models: Popular description of two full-length figures, Venus & Adonis, illustrative of the anatomy of the human frame (1850?) (image via the Wellcome Library)
The Venus drawing from a catalogue (1850?) created by Antonio Sarti, called Signor Sarti’s Florentine anatomical models: Popular description of two full-length figures, Venus & Adonis, illustrative of the anatomy of the human frame (1850?) (image via the Wellcome Library)

When the Black residents of Wilhelmshöhe died, their bodies were then sent for dissection to the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel. Here German anatomist and head of the anatomy theater Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring studied them. Sömmerring had been tutored by the infamous Petrus Camper. Jones notes on the use of these bodies: “German and other European anatomists used the bodies of the Kassel blacks first dissected there to establish many of the accepted theories about sexual and racial difference in the eighteenth century.”

From these dissections and false theorizations on corporal differentiations between African and  European bodies would come this era’s standard text for understanding the anatomy of African bodies: Über die körperliche Verschiedenheit des Mohren vom Europäer (“Concerning the Bodily Difference between Moors and Europeans”) (1784). The word Mohren (“Moors”) was not long thereafter changed to “Neger” (“Negro”), which Jones notes shows a shift from the “Oriental splendor” surrounding “Moors” to the new scientistic inquiry directed at African bodies. Sömmerring’s false theories on the inferiority of African bodies would go on to shape and inform racial theory well into the 19th century.

a diagram from Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854) which is in the public domain

Conceptions of anatomy and beauty birthed in the 18th century would also have a strong impact on later American formations of racial hierarchies. Heidi Morse, a lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, notes the impact of Camper’s work on later American conceptions of race and anatomy:

Nineteenth century writers Camper’s findings into derogatory classifications of racial “types,” as exemplified by the racist diagram in Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854) that places an image of the Apollo Belvedere in hierarchical supremacy over the “Negro” and the “Young Chimpanzee.”

By the 19th century, constructed metrics of beauty had become engrained in both the European and American mindset. White women continued to be likened to a waxen Venus and white men to marble Apollos, whereas Black bodies were often purposefully associated with simians rather than statues. There were indeed busts, statues, and sometimes wax models of Moors and African bodies made, but many later-19th-century European museums tried to associate these bodies with notions of the “primitive.” When wax artist Antonio Sarti opened London’s first dedicated anatomy museum, the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, in 1839, the centerpiece was an anatomical wax Venus advertised as “better than nature” along with a waxen Adonis. The waxen figures of Africans were, in contrast, displayed with tails. The correspondence or absence of projecting artistic ideals of human beauty onto anatomy would have grave aesthetic repercussions in the centuries that followed and only deepen pseudoscientific theories of racial superiority.

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