This collection of anatomy waxes in Florence is one I’ve read about for years. The official website that I checked before leaving on m’big trip was somewhat discouraging, describing a complicated process involving a phone call to apply for a tour place, and implying that the collection would probably be closed when I was going to be in Florence, between Christmas and New Year, as it was part of a University-supervised collection. So I sighed, and resigned my self to only seeing all the other ridiculously astonishing art and palaces on display in this amazing city.
Then . . . we came across the collection somewhat accidentally, at the first museum we visited, The Museum of Zoology and Natural History, next to the Pitti Palace. I’d gone there with my husband to see the old taxidermied animals (we’re those kind of tourists), and noticed there were anatomical waxes, behind an iron grill. The lady at the front desk said oh yes it was the collection, and possible to visit with a guide today, should she put our names on the list? Oh yes. Photos were fine, although no flash of course. The thick old glass cases were a challenge to photograph through, although to the eyes, it was perfect. Amazing to see in the round, and to see the original dioramas in wax that inspired the whole project, astonishing little works of gruesomely gorgeous art by Gaetano Zumbo.
The colours have shifted since the models were made 200+ years ago at the behest of Leopold II, then Grand Duke of Tuscany. But still the work is all so delicate, so precise, so so so everything. Beautiful, art and craft serving science. There are several ‘Venus’ models, which I have seen in miniature in other medical collections, but here were the originals, as created by Clemente Susini, life size with long (real) hair, a string of pearls, and a belly made to be removed to reveal the inner workings of females (the glass case and angle meant I didn’t get a photograph, but there’s a discussion of them here).
There’s fine summary of the collection’s history in The Journal of Anatomy. The most complex models (for example of the lymphatic system) involved hundreds of dissections, conducted mostly on the bodies of criminals and ‘unclaimed poor’. Each finished piece is a testament to collaboration between skilled dissections, and skilled wax workers. The collection was also important for the public access that was permitted – any member of the public who was ‘clean’ was allowed to visit, it was the first public science museum.