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  • Ode to an Anatomical Venus
  • Joanna Ebenstein (bio)

"The purpose of anatomical images during the period of the Renaissance to the 19th century had as much to do with what we would call aesthetic and theological understanding as with the narrower interests of medical illustrators as now understood . . . They were not simply instructional diagrams for the doctor technician, but statements about the nature of human beings as made by God in the context of the created world as a whole . . . they are about the nature of life and death. . ."

Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies

Clemente Susini's Anatomical Venus (circa 1790) is, to this writer, a perfect object whose luxuriously bizarre existence challenges belief. It—or, better she—was conceived of as a means to teach human anatomy without need for constant dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught, and subject to quick decay. The Venus also tacitly communicated the relationship between the human body and a divinely created cosmos, between art and science, between nature and mankind as understood in its day. Referred to also as "The Demountable Venus," this life-sized, dissectible wax woman--who can still be viewed in her original Venetian glass and rosewood case at the Museum of Zoology and Natural History (La Specola) in Florence, Italy--is adorned with glass eyes and human hair and can be dismembered into dozens of parts revealing, at the final remove, a beatific fetus curled in her womb. Her sisters—also anatomical models made under the artistic leadership of Susini (1754-1814), and referred to by such names as "The Slashed Beauty" and "The Dissected Graces"—can be visited at a handful of European museums. Supine in their glass boxes, they beckon with a smile; one idly toys with a plait of real golden human hair; another clutches at the plush, moth-eaten velvet cushions of her case as her torso erupts in a [End Page 346] spontaneous, bloodless auto-dissection; another is crowned with a golden tiara; while yet another has a silk ribbon tied in a bow around a dangling entrail.

Since their creation in late-eighteenth-century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. Today, they also confound, troubling the edges of our neat categorical divides: life and death, science and art, body and soul, effigy and pedagogy, spectacle and education, kitsch and art. They are corporeal martyrs, anatomical odalisques, the uncanny incarnate. These wax models are the pinnacle of "artificial anatomies," a tradition of three-dimensional, anatomical teaching tools stretching back to the turn of the eighteenth century. The genre came into being when Gaetano Giulio Zummo, known as Zumbo (1656-1701) was comissioned by the French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues (1650-1735) to create a likeness of an important medical dissection that was beginning to decompose (Riva et al. 2010). Zumbo was a Sicilian abbot who delighted in the creation of wax miniature series "Theatres of Death" boasting names such as "The Plague" and "The Vanity of Human Greatness," and featuring exactingly rendered dead and tortured bodies. The product of Desnoues' and Zumbo's collaboration was the first wax anatomical teaching model, and established the tradition of an artistic/medical partnership in the creation of such tools.

The Venus and her sisters were intended, from their very conception, not only to instruct, but also to delight and elicit the wonder of a popular audience and, beginning with their public debut in the 1790s, they did just that, attracting throngs of both local Tuscans and visitors on the Grand Tour circuit (Maerker 2011, Dacome 2006). Their popularity was so great that they ultimately inspired a series of knockoffs—first a series of similar models by the same workshop for Joseph II of Vienna and Napoleon and, later, in series of models advertised as "Florentine" or "Parisian" or even automated breathing Venuses that toured Europe, attracting masses of visitors to the popular anatomical displays found in Europe well into the twentieth century (Kametsu and Sato 1997). The uncanny allure of these somnambulant, neither-dead-nor-alive women was not lost on surrealist artists such as Paul Delvaux—who cited his visits to the Spitzner Collection, with its famous breathing Venus, as a life...


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