Raised as a Roman Catholic, Grand Duke Peter Leopold was taught to condemn human dissection, which the Church Fathers considered sacrilegious because it stripped the dead of the entrails needed for the Last Judgment. But Peter Leopold was an enlightened despot who did not want his subjects to perish at the hands of inexperienced doctors. In the early 1770s, the Italian physiologist Felice Fontana offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse. In exchange for a supply of fresh corpses, Fontana promised to replace human flesh with colored wax.
The technology was already established. In ancient Greece, sculptors used wax to create funerary masks. Known as ceramics, the craft was revived in Renaissance Florence and used to produce realistic-looking votives such as ersatz hands and feet. Artists also introduced wax into religious statues, often deliberately grotesque, decorated with real hair and teeth to maximize dramatic effect. Even some anatomists had experience with keratoplasties, wrapping wax muscles around real skeletons for prolonged surgical study. (It helped that they didn’t smell.)
What Fontana had in mind, however, would bring anatomical keratoplasty into a realm that has to be seen to be believed. A new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan provides an excellent opportunity to see the work in person. Four 18u Life-size turn-of-the-century wax models from the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence are displayed in antique glass cases. They are shown alongside a short film directed by David Cronenberg, which features the models as lifeless protagonists.
All four wax figures are simulations of women. Their bodies are spotless. Their gestures are animated, their facial expressions ecstatic. You might think they were alive if it weren’t for the fact that their chests can be opened and their bellies split open layer by layer, revealing muscles, skeleton and internal organs. One of the women is pregnant.
The historical term for such models is anatomical Venus. Several hundred were made at the University of Florence under the supervision of Fontana under the patronage of Peter Leopold. Their anatomical accuracy was ensured by the cadavers given to Fontana, which were dissected in the presence of sculptors who skillfully reproduced each body part. Because the wax could be spilled, the models could be copied and distributed far and wide. Before the invention of color photography, they were considered the best available representation of human anatomy, optimal for teaching because they circumvented religious controversy, reduced grave robbing, and prevented the gag reflex caused by rotting flesh.
Which doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Cronenberg’s greatest films can’t compete with their weirdness. They rise between life and death. It is both sexual and clinical. To modern eyes, they epitomize the uncanny, a term coined by psychiatrist Ernst Jensch to denote “the boundary between the pathological and the normal.” (In his definition, which provided the basis for Sigmund Freud’s best-known report, Jensch makes special mention of wax figures.)
Art historians have convincingly linked the anatomical Venuses to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17u century Baroque funerary monument depicting Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Like Fontana’s candles, she lies on a mattress, her head thrown back in rapture. (Unlike the candles, Ludovica is fully clothed.) The comparison is more significant because it places Venus’ trance in the realm of religious iconography. Even if they are not conventionally saints, these women are not mere mortals.
Are their poses to be understood in terms of self-sacrifice? As David Cronenberg argues in an interview for the exhibition’s excellent catalogue, their stance is not passive. They are “kind of completely part of that look of their interior,” he observes. Rapture seems to come less from patient self-sacrifice than enthusiastic self-disclosure.
The reference to Bernini is also a reminder of the perfect artistry of the sculptures Fontana used. Wax statues don’t just prevent the gag reflex. they are incredibly beautiful. And their beauty is not just superficial.
In this respect, the connection with Cronenberg’s cinema is particularly strong. Back in 1988, decades before his first encounter with Fontana’s candles, Cronenberg essentially recounted his experience of seeing the anatomical Venuses on film Dead Ringers. “Surely you’ve heard of inner beauty?” says the character Elliot Mantle, who looks a lot like Cronenberg himself. “I have often thought that there should be beauty contests for the inside of bodies. You know, better spleen. The most perfectly developed kidneys. Why don’t we have standards of beauty for the entire human body, inside and out?’
Although Mantle is not the most virtuous character to grace the big screen, his sentiment is refined through the inner beauty manifested in Fontana’s keratoplasty Venuses. These wax models alert us to the qualities that lie beneath the surface, from a shapely spleen to a kindness of heart.
Anatomical Venuses have more to offer than anatomy lessons. Their inconsistency blurs the lines between science and religion. Their beautiful entrails are ready for the Last Judgment.
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