The Uncannily Beautiful: When the World Learned Anatomy through a Venus
This beautiful, horrible, dissectible wax model was used to teach anatomy in the 18th century.
In the history of the teaching of human anatomy, two extraordinary moments explain not only the evolution of human approaches to death but also the essential relationship between science and art in the dissemination of knowledge. The first was in 1543, with the publication of De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius. The founder of modern anatomy, Vesalius used architecture and the most blatant spatial metaphors to explain the human body to medical students. The second moment was the extravagant invention, during the renaissance, of the anatomical Venus: a wax doll conceived as a means for teaching anatomy without the need for constant dissections. A dirty process, these were always ethically challenging and, of course, subject to decomposition.
Joanna Ebenstein, of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York, traveled the world to write the history of wax models for her book, The Anatomical Venus. The first of these models can still be visited at the Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence, Italy. Adorned with glass eyes and human hair, the figure can be split into dozens of parts that reveal in the end, a beatific fetus curled in the womb. Her sisters – anatomical models made by one Clemente Susini (1754-1814) – can be visited in a handful of European museums. All of them exhibit a slight, placid smile, a serene countenance and a pale skin, perfect but for the places where their organs are exposed. Even in death, the women remain beautiful and desirable, with no trace of the suffering of their explicit deaths.
Unlike the figures of Vesalius, muscular, vigorous and reasonable though they lack skin and yet remain alive and acting, the sleeping wax appears neither alive nor dead, neither asleep nor attentive, but represents a pleasant submission to medical exploration and curiosity. And it’s in that moment (notes Ebenstein), that the observer is to be seduced by the aesthetics. How then could anyone present death pleasantly?
The beauty of the Anatomical Venus was an important strategy to seduce the viewer into wanting to learn and, at the same time, divorcing her from ideas of death and the grave, which is the source of most anatomical knowledge.
At the time these models were conceived and created, the anatomy of women was of great interest in both medical and social circles. To explain human behavior via the body one also had to understand its intra-uterine genesis. The body is understood in terms of phylogenetic and embryological development. The anatomical Venus solved this problem through a mixture of beauty, eroticism and death, and each had a fetus.
Today, an anatomical Venus confronts us with several equally fascinating issues and is indispensable for reconciling humankind with death. Watching her, we realize we do not know her. We don’t know how to observe this profanity which is no longer religious or unethical, because our ethic is purely external. What is underneath, that which overflows, we problematize fundamentally. In the beautiful anatomical Venus whose viscera – whose real color, putrefacto – overflows its containing skin, we’re reminded very explicitly (we reflect here, organically) that there is something more naked than nudity. Under the pubis and the breasts, mere draperies covering organs, is the problem of the viscous viscera told by the colors and textures which should rightly even include some very bad smells. We’ve replaced the erotic and the sublime for bright colors. Anatomy school today is plastic, colorful (red veins, blue arteries) and clean. We move away from the rot of the Renaissance to malleable models that don’t spill or remind us of ourselves.
There’s no doubt that in the historic summa of explicit anatomy, these wax sleepwalkers are the most aesthetic and disturbing examples of all. In concluding, Ebenstein says:
It is my belief that what we witness in the material form of Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Venus and her sisters is a passing of the torch from religion to science and medicine as the primary way of dealing with death and disease, of understanding the nature of life, our purpose, and our place in the universe. Much of the intrigue in these waxes, their enchanting incongruity, the nature of their flickering on the binary edges of our foundational categories, stems from the fact that both realities are still very present and strongly resonating. It is perhaps an intuited resolution of our own divided natures that draws us to the Venus, an unconscious comprehension that she might suggest another avenue abandoned, one in which beauty and science, religion and medicine, soul and body, are one.
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