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Configurations 9.1 (2001) 65-97

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Waxing Poetic: Anna Morandi Manzolini's Anatomical Sculptures

Rebecca Messbarger
Washington University


The anatomical wax sculptures of Bolognese artist and anatomist Anna Morandi Manzolini manifest the intimate partnership between the systematizing eye and the probing hand that marks the Enlightenment worldview. Bridging what Barbara Stafford has judged the "untraversable abyss of the eighteenth century between the practical visual and the theoretical textual,"1 Morandi's waxes conjoin the fine arts and surgery, sense and cognition, hands and eyes, to vividly render and theorize the workings of the human body. Resistant to the neoclassical aesthetic ideal as well as the canon of topographical anatomy, her sculptures and voluminous explanatory notes offer a new rendering of the "fabric of human bodies" that envisions each organ in terms of its vital function within the context of a dynamic, interdependent physiological whole. In this paper I aim to delineate Anna Morandi's little-known history and accomplishments, and to elucidate the unique body narrative and poetics of anatomical design that she inscribed in tinted wax.2

As with other illustrious women of her age, Morandi's contemporary authority and historical import were, until quite recently, all but dismantled. In the two centuries since her death, only about a dozen articles have treated her life and work, and these often contradict [End Page 65] each other and present as fact unsubstantiated data. 3 Much of what is known about her has, in fact, come from writings focused on her less capable and less influential contemporary male counterparts. As regards extant wax models sculpted by Morandi, a significant number have been carefully restored and are housed in the Museum of Normal Human Anatomy of the University of Bologna. However, numerous sculptures, especially those commissioned by foreign patrons, have not been recovered, and still more remain out of sight in a state of extreme disrepair. In constructing this account, I have endeavored to indicate discrepancies among Morandi's biographers, to engage questions of attribution regarding her work, to narrow lacunae in her history when viable, but also to indicate those gaps that will not now be filled. Much in the same way that she has succeeded in evoking the whole, living person through her sculptures of incomplete faces, solitary eyeballs, and truncated hands, I hope to render the unique force and trajectory of her life and work despite fragmentary biographical data and the loss or damage of many of her sculptures.

In order to reconstruct Morandi's story, it is necessary to characterize the unique cultural context into which she was born in 1716. Her specific accomplishments as an anatomical wax modeler, a scientist, and a woman working in these male-dominated disciplines would most probably never have been realized outside Enlightenment Bologna. Two native sons, General Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (1680-1730) and archbishop of Bologna Prospero Lambertini (1675- 1758), who in 1742 became Pope Benedict XIV, were principally responsible for fostering the reforms that distinguished the intellectual life of the city. Linked by their common devotion to modern experimental science and their ambition to return Bologna to its former [End Page 66] status as "madre degli studi" (mother of studies), 4 Marsili and Lambertini effected in their native city a new era in scientific study that shaped and was shaped by the work of Anna Morandi.

In 1714, Marsili founded the Bolognese Istituto delle Scienze (Institute of Science), a research and teaching academy for the advancement of an "historia vera naturale"--a true natural history grounded in the rigorous scientific analysis and classification of natural phenomena. 5 The acme of Marsili's lifelong scientific ambition, the Institute originated in his Bolognese palace in via San Mamolo both as a scientific studio and as a repository for his vast collection of scientific instruments and texts and his exempla and taxonomies of sea and plant life compiled during his military career in the service of Emperor Leopold I. 6 With official sanction and funding from the Bolognese Senate, the Institute moved in 1714 to Palazzo Poggi where it became, as Marsili had designated, a...


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