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Dissected Graces: Wax Women During the Enlightenment

The Wellcome Collection

Made of wax, the anatomical venus is a striking resemblance to a living, breathing woman. Her skin has a translucency. Her real human hair long and flowing. And all of her internal organs sit perfectly in her torso ready to be taken out and placed back in. Known alternatively as “Slashes Beauties” or “Dissected Graces”, the masses at the time became enamored with her.

Science and Artistry

Natural History Museum of Florence | Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

The period, referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, focused on a shift away from the concepts of absolute monarchies, concentrated power, and the hoarding of information to free thinking, science, and philosophy. The first Anatomical Venus was commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II in 1780. Leopold, who aimed to blend both the decadent artistry of the past with the instructive, scientific focus of the Enlightenment,  hoped this model would intrigue others to learn more about the human body’s inner workings. By allowing for medical practitioners, artists, and the general public to have this incredibly accessible representation of the human body, perhaps the need for human dissection would be eliminated altogether.

“It is interesting to consider that the body – its nuts and bolts, the raw mechanics of it – had by this point long been considered a proper subject for artists. Leonardo da Vinci had dissected more than 100 bodies himself earlier that century, and a younger artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti, accepted a commission from a church for which he was paid in corpses.” Zoe Williams, Cadavers in pearls: meet the Anatomical Venus

The artist commissioned would be Clemente Susini, a sculptor from Florence who studied at the Royal Gallery. The initial Anatomical Venus impressed Leopold so much that he requested an entire set of similarly dissectible models. The first model can be seen in La Specola in Italy – the Natural History Museum. In all, Susini created close to 2,000 anatomic models before his death in 1814.

La Specola, Florence. Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

How to make death palatable

Part of the struggle when it came to teaching anatomy was the simple fact that you couldn’t learn much if you weren’t dealing with a real corpse. How could an artist make the dissection of a human post-mortem acceptable and even intriguing to the public? Simple – make the corpse that of a beautiful woman.

Reclined on a bed, each model was a young women, neck exposed with a look of ecstasy on their face. While one can take a deep skeptical look at the undertones here surrounding violence against women, the public in the day were drawn to Venus like a moth to the flame. It does seem incredibly strange and startling to be removing the 7 anatomically perfect and interlocking organs from such a stark contrast to the cadavers of the past.

Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni, Vienna | Photo © Joanna Ebenstein

The Anatomical Venus forces us to confront a lot of feelings surrounding the human condition – how life and death should be depicted. Should beauty be completely separate from death? Are we uncomfortable with her because of this juxtaposition? Reflecting on the time in which she was created, was the fascination with her macabre and almost fetishized or genuine curiosity and fascination in the medical insight she had to offer? There are many interpretations, but the fact that she remains a fascinating part of human history and enlightenment speaks to her true magnetism.

What are your thoughts on the Anatomical Venus?

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