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The Anatomical Venus

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Beneath the original Venetian glass and rosewood case at La Specola in Florence lies Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Venus (c. 1790), 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. This life-sized wax woman is adorned with glass eyes and human hair and can be dismembered into dozens of parts revealing, at the final remove, a beatific foetus curled in her womb. Sister models soon appeared throughout Europe, where they not only instructed the specialist students, but also delighted the general public. Deftly crafted dissectable female wax models and slashed beauties of the world’s anatomy museums and fairgrounds of the 18th and 19th centuries take centre stage in this disquieting volume. Since their creation in late 18th-century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued and amazed. 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. Incisive commentary and captivating imagery reveal the evolution of these enigmatic sculptures from wax effigy to fetish figure and the embodiment of the uncanny.


[Photo by Shannon Taggart]

Joanna Ebenstein is co-founder and creative director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn New York as well as a multidisciplinary artist, curator, blogger, and graphic designer . She runs a blog called Morbid Anatomy and the related Morbid Anatomy Library, and is the founding member of an art/event space called Observatory.

Ebenstein photographs, curates, and collects artifacts, images, and texts relating to curious collections, early museums and cabinets of curiosity, collectors and collecting, medical museums, and museums of natural history. Her photography–more of which can be seen here–has been shown internationally and has appeared in a variety of publications. Her recent solo exhibition, Anatomical Theatre, explored the art and culture of medical museums around the world through photographs of their artifacts. Another recent exhibition, Private Cabinets, featured a collection of photographs of privately held collections around the world. She also acted as curatorial advisor and designer for the London based Wellcome Collection’s recent Exquisite Bodies: or the Curious and Grotesque History of the Anatomical Models exhibition.

You can see more of Ebenstein’s photography by clicking here.

You can find out more her and her work by visiting www.astropop.com and morbidanatomy.blogspot.com.


3:AM: Your latest book, The Anatomical Venus, explores the contradictions of its subject. So by way of introduction, could you sketch for us what you take these contradictions to be?

Joanna Ebenstein: The Anatomical Venus flickers on the edges of some of such cherished binary divides as education and spectacle, sobriety and pleasure, art and science, beauty and death, eroticism and the medical gaze, affect and didacticism, metaphor and observable fact, body and soul, religion and medicine, life and death, sacred and profane, alive and yet not alive. In her own time, I do not believe these were seen as contradictions. I believe it is the passing of time that has rendered her strange.

3:AM: The Venus is an eighteenth century invention born in Florence, in the Museum for physics and natural History. So was it primarily an object for proto-scientific enquiry – I guess that science as we know it hadn’t started yet?

JE: There is a great quote from the catalog for “Spectacular Bodies,” the first exhibition to present anatomical models as art objects, in London in 2000. The curators, Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, write: “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. . .”

This is a reminder that, up until the 19th century, science as we now know it–with its biologists, botanists, geologists and the like–did not yet exist. Instead, there was natural philosophy, which utilized a combination of approaches we would now divide into science, aesthetics, and metaphysics in it attempts to understand the natural world. In this philosophy, the human being was understood to be the pinnacle of God’s creation, and created in God’s image, so that to understand the secrets of the human body was seen as a way to understand the mind of God. It is my belief that one can still unconsciously intuit this worldview in The Anatomical Venus, and that this is one source of her fascinating strangeness.

3:AM: Was Leopold II an embodiment of the Enlightenment and was the Venus an example of the sort of approach to natural philosophy that the Enlightenment espoused?

JE: Yes! Scholar Rebecca Messbarger argues very convincingly that Leopold II’s Anatomical Venus was a response to the other, fine-art Venuses of Florence–such as Titian Venus of Urbino and Botticelli’s Venuses–which attracted those on the Grand Tour, or the trip taken by many aristocratic youths to pay homage to the great artistic monuments of Europe. By overseeing the creation of a Venus that was educational as well as beautiful, Leopold could be seen as both trying to make his Venus into another must-see on the Grand Tour route while also making a statement about his own values in contrast to those of the previous ruling dynasty of the Medici, which he saw as frivolous and decadent. It could be seen as a statement about the values of Prince Leopold II, the founder of the Museum, a Habsburg prince attempting to remodel his newly acquired territory of Tuscany in his own progressive, rational image and divorce it from its frivolous, decadent past.


3:AM: Was wax commonly used for this type of thing, and why use the figure of Venus?

JE: Wax had long been used for magical objects such as Voudou dolls and poppets, proxy bodies crafted to inflict harm or death to enemies. Wax was also an important part of many funerary practices, such as Fayum mummy portraits and Roman effigies of the dead, as well as memento mori, objects created to remind the viewer of their own mortality.

Wax was also a favored medium for anatomical ex votos, models in the shapes human body parts left at the shrine of a saint to commemorate or request a miraculous healing. It was also used in the crafting of effigies of saints, some of which also served as reliquaries, housing the sacred and miracle-providing body parts of deceased saints and martyrs.

The progressive leaders Prince Leopold II and Pope Benedict XIV founded the first anatomical wax collections. They were also behind the movement to abolish the use of wax for sacred purposes. Pope Benedict XIV, who founded the first anatomical wax museum in Bologna in the 1740s, was also famous for his attempts to promote a scientific methodology to ascertain whether or not alleged miracles were true, for his epistolary relationship with Voltaire, and for encouraging his laity to donate their bodies for anatomical dissection. This display, not surprisingly, presented a scientifically accurate understanding of human anatomy that was at the same time a meditation on death as the result of Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden. It features full sized waxworks, with real human hair and glass eyes, representing Adam and Eve that are are flanked by a series of life-sized standing wax figures built on human skeletons and demonstrating various levels of muscular dissection. The final piece in each series is a bare human skeleton holding a scythe: an angel of death.

Wax ex votos and reliquary effigies, I would argue, share a strong formal and functional similarity to the Anatomical Venus and other anatomical models. To my mind, they mark a moment in time when science was first beginning to displace religion as the place for answers regarding life, death, and the human condition. Catholocism and medicine share a strong interest in the corporeal human body, and both make healing one of their primary concerns, in the case of catholocisum through divine intervention and in the case of medicine through. Anatomical waxes were created in a catholic context

The figure of Venus was already important in Florence–as I said earlier. It was also a precedent for the depiction of female nudes in fine art.

3:AM: Do the links with the use of momento-mori and religious warnings about living a bad life etc feed into the Venus even though she isn’t a Christian figure is she? Does imagery of Venus and Mary collide in this area?

JE: Absolutely! The first anatomical model was the product of a sort of mystic marriage between memento mori and anatomical science when French surgeon and anatomy profess Guillaume Desnoues approached Gaetano Giulio Zummo, better known today as Zumbo, to create a wax model of a medical preparation–human remains usually preserved in some sort of spirits for instructional purposes–that was beginning to decay. Zumbo was renowned for extremely realistic, anatomically accurate (he is said to have conducted his own dissections), and naturalistically observed memento mori themed wax miniatures tableaux that he created for his patron Grand Duke Cosimo III. Today these pieces are known as his “Theatres of Death.”


Beyond simply creating the first anatomical model, the collaboration between Zumbo and Desnoues set the language for wax anatomies to come. They chose to depict their models not as the dissected corpses they were, but as human figures in a state of suspended animation, or even alive. This decision was pivotal in making anatomical study more acceptable and appealing, and less frightening or disgusting, to the general public; it also gave rise to a flowering of anatomical models in Italy, created for public edification and entertainment, up until the early twentieth century.

As to Mary, there is an interesting overlap: one of the precedents for the dissectible Anatomical Venus is what is known as the Mater gravida, or “our lady of expectations”, in which a pregnant Virgin Mary was shown with the baby Jesus visible inside the womb through a door or cutaway. Also significant is a wooden, demountable, pregnant anatomical Eve from the seventeenth century, whose internal organs and fetus come into view when her breastplate is removed, her genitals discreetly hidden by a wreath of carved leaves.

3:AM: Zumbo’s work seems to be a precursor of the Venus – De Sade and Melville both comment about it – it’s powerful and morbid isn’t it? How important is Zumbo in the history leading up to the Venus – he seems like a proto-Chapman brother?

JE: Zumbo’s work was part of the Baroque tendency towards using virtuosic naturalistic representation in order to elicit in the view a visceral realization of metaphysical truth. As described in Michael Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn book Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence,” a virtuosity in simulating the ‘truth’ of the material world had the paradoxical function of making such images more effective transmitters of supernatural power.”

This tension is related to a late 17th century European tradition in which when meditation on the decomposition of the body in the tomb with as much detail as possible was recommended as a spiritual exercise in books such as Jesuit Daniello Bartoli’s popular devotional manual L’huomo al punto, cioe l’huomo al punto di morte (Man at the Turning Point, that is, Man at the Point of Death), which included a chapter entitled ‘The tomb a school able to make even the mad wise: we enter therein to hear a lesson of moral and Christian philosophy’. The 17th century also saw a flowering of memento mori imagery, probably related to frequent and devastating outbreaks of plague and the attendant bodily horrors.


3:AM: How come London became important for the exhibition of the Venus throughout the nineteenth century? Does the interest in the more carnivalesque aspects reflect the changing social setting. It seems to get more lurid in some respects as the scientific approach becomes more accepted and the religious retreats. Is that right?

JE: London was a large city with a wide variety of of rational amusements, or displays intended to amuse and edify. Most even reasonably large cities had similar displays, including Liverpool, Barcelona, Munich, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. And yes, as the religious sensibility which was inherent in natural philosophy gets replaced by a post-Darwinian worldview, and the ghost leaves the machine, to know the body ceases to be a way to know the mind of god, and displays become more lurid and baldly sensual.

3:AM: Is the development of interest in machines important in explaining popular interest in these waxworks?

JE: That’s very interesting; I suppose they were seen as ingenious machines, as was the human body itself, and people admired them as marvels or human technology, perfect philosophical machines.

3:AM: Interest in sex, freak shows, horror and disease seem to have been important to explain the entertainment value at this time too don’t they? Can you say something about this and about some of the shows such as the ones in Essen in 1889 and Barcelona’s red-light district at the Museo Roca?

JE: Well, it must be remembered that sexual hygiene was a legitimate concern at this time, with syphilis in particular somewhat ubiquitous, incurable; it could also kill you, disfigure you, or drive you mad. Another common moral disease diagnosis was that of “Spermatorrhea,” thought to be caused by over-indulgence of the sexual appetite and/or masturbation. It symptoms were described by The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English in 1895 as “… loss of nervous energy, dullness of the mental faculties, and delight in obscene stories… the face bloated and pale, and the disposition is fretful and irritable; the appetite is capricious…pains in the chest, wakefulness, and during the night lascivious thoughts and desires.”

It is also important to note that reception for these displays changed dramatically over time. In the early 19th century, as scholar Maritha Rene Burmeister points out, reputable science journals such as The Lancet recommended these displays as both educational and laudable. This changed when they increasingly became linked with quack medics, who would use museums–which featured “chambers of horrors” filled with wax models displaying the terrifying effects of sexually transmitted diseases–as a lure for business. Young men concerned that that their own “night with Venus” might, as the popular maxim warned, have led to “a lifetime with Mercury,” would be invited into the office of a ‘doctor’ available on the premises (for an additional fee, of course); he could provide counsel and prescribe patent medications, usually with a mercury base.

3:AM: Can you say something about the intersection of the waxworks with the morgue and how this fuelled a continuing allure of the corpse even after laws prohibited many of the anatomical museums by the end of the nineteenth century.

JE: As discussed at length by Vanessa Schwartz, the Paris Morgue was a major tourist attraction from the nineteenth century until it closed in 1907 “out of concern for public morality.” Bodies would be laid out behind large plate glass windows, ostensibly for the purpose of identification. It could attract as many as 40,000 people a day, and was described in a French Daily: as “considered in Paris like a museum that is much more fascinating than even a wax museum because the people displayed are real flesh and blood.”

The morgue also featured in popular novels, such as George du Maurier’s Trilby and Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. I think the link between the closing of the British and American museums and the continuation of displays at the Paris Morgue is a bit more complicated than it seems; so far as I know, it was only America and Britain which banned those museums out of concerns of nudity and morality. I feel like the continent had a more liberal attitude generally about nudity, sexuality, death and the body.


3:AM: How does all this link with ecstasy, fetishism and doll worship?

JE: Many people now interpret the Venus’ expression and posture as erotic. It is my belief that in her own day she was not understood in that way–or at least not primarily in that way. We know that The Anatomical Venus was on view to a general public of men, women and children at the first truly public science museum, and that she was popular and much lauded, with copies even being commissioned for other professional institutions.

We also know that in Catholic churches, it is still common to see effigies, paintings and sculptures depicting saints and martyrs in similar attitudes of ecstatic release, the best known of which is probably Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa. Bernini was by all accounts a devout catholic, and his work is placed in a church and popular with catholics and art connoisseurs alike. All of this suggests that, at the time of her making, The Anatomical Venus did not seem particularly improper, risque or troubling.

It is my belief that a broader, more complex understanding of the ecstatic influenced the Anatomical Venus’ reception, one in which the ecstatic was understood as not merely sexual, but also an expression of the sacred, indicative of a mystical experience. What some today read as prurient might say more about our own purely mechanistic view of the world and the body in which only profane interpretations can remain.

Regardless, today we cannot help but see the Venus today in the context of more profane interpretations. And, even today, sexuality and desire continue to be somewhat mysterious things, and retain a hint of the numinous.This numerousness plays itself out in sexual fetishism, the worship of dolls, and the preserved effigies or corpses of dead beloveds.

3:AM: This takes us to the notion of the uncanny – in terms of the Venus and contemporary responses, what do you think accounts for the sense of the uncanny that is so prevalent when she is encountered?

JE: Many people find the Anatomical Venus disquieting. Grotesque and beautiful, spectacle and teaching tool, seemingly both dead and alive, she tends to elicit a strong emotional engagement, deep fascination, and intellectual uncertainty. This uncertainty, and the feelings of uneasiness it provokes, can be understood via the concept of The Uncanny, which was most famously delineated by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 book by the same name.


This sensation, he explains, is felt when we encounter something that seems to confirm beliefs we held as children or in earlier moments of our societal development but now believe could not be true—such as that our toys might come to life, the existence of revenants (the returned dead) or ghosts. The uncanny happens when our most basic notions of reality are challenged, causing us to question all that we take for granted—such as the non-existence of the supernatural or, as with automatons and life-like waxworks, the impossibility of seeming both dead and alive. If a doll can come to life, the assumptions on which we built our understanding of the world are completely up for grabs. For some people this is a horrifying experience, and for others a pleasurable one.

Interestingly, The Anatomical Venus was a product of the historical moment when the uncanny first became a possibility. As argued by cultural critic Terry Castle, the uncanny is a product of the 18th century enlightenment, with its desire to, in her words, “systematize and regulate.” It is, she argues, “only when the ‘marvellous’ is dislodged and ‘sober truth’ elevated in its stead” that the uncanny can exist. The fascinating paradox is that it is precisely our attempt to dispel superstition and create a rational, controllable universe that gives rise to the spectres that haunt the modern Western outlook, by taking the spectres we once believed to be outside of us and transforming them into phantoms of our own minds.

3:AM: And what do you think all this tells us about our contemporary cultural context?

JE: Until Enlightenment ideas triumphed, supernatural ideas were a routine way of understanding the world. Even the Age of Enlightenment –which we see as having ushered in our contemporary mechanical worldview–was much more complicated than we remember it today, and aware of its own philosophical limitations. Philosopher and mathematician René Descartes reported to have learned the principles of materialist rationality from an angel who visited him in his dreams. Isaac Newton wrote not only about math and science, but also on alchemy and the bible. And Immanuel Kant stated in the opening sentence of his iconic “Critique of Pure Reason” that “Human reason has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”

Despite humanity’s talents and achievements, our ability to create life, defeat death or to attain perfect rationality remain elusive. The spiritual and the numinous does not disappear, but is sublimated, haunting our mechanistic world. As French physician and psychiatrist Alexandre Jacques François Brière de Boismont observed in 1845 “… the feeling of the unknown to which man attaches himself, and from which arises the want of something to believe, a love of the marvelous, a desire for knowledge, and a craving after excitement, is itself only a weakened condition of the religious sentiment.”

The Anatomical Venus can be seen as part of an Enlightenment project to impose a sense of order and control on that which will always defy our understanding–the messy, throbbing, astoundingly complex, intriguing and terrifying human body which we all inhabit, and the mysterious spark that animates it. To anatomize is to single out, to separate from its system, to analyse each thing separately, yet this approach brings us no closer to understanding the mysteries of life and death at the core of our own fascination. And it makes the mysteries that remain that much more unsettling.

It also does not answer our questions about the complicated and mysterious relationship between mind and body, as demonstrated by the placebo effect. In the Anatomical Venus, we encounter an object rendered strange by the passing of time. In her day, she was seen as a beatutiful and ideal way to teach human anatomy to a general, non-specialist audience. Today, she baffles. This is true of so many artifacts from the history of medicine, and objects from the past related to death and the body.

It is my belief that, in the material form of the Anatomical Venus, we apprehend a moment when it was still possible for religion, art, philosophy and science to coexist peacefully. The Anatomical Venus might be seen as a relic, then, from an age in which the torch was in the process of being passed from the spiritual to the scientific as the primary arbiter of our relationship to death, disease, the nature of life, and humanity’s place in the universe. In her passive, stylized waxen beauty we can, perhaps, intuit a lost attitude to life: one that unifies rather than divides, one which effortlessly embodies opposing ideas, one that leaves room for mystery and incomprehension.


[Sleeping beauty]

3:AM: And finally, how do you respond to the ‘dolls’ yourself? Do you find them attractive or is your interest more intellectual?

JE: For me, the interest began as purely visual. I came into contact with my first Anatomical Venus on a trip to photograph medical museums in 2007 and her beauty, prescence, and strangeness captivated me. Only later did this interest become intellectual. I wanted to understand her; how could this object that once was seen as an idea and ingenious way to teach anatomy have become so utterly bizarre in a little per 200 years? How could we understand an object equally at home in the fairground archive and the medical museum, one that is at once a seductive representation of ideal female beauty and an explicit demonstration of the inner workings of the body? How to get to the bottom of a creature memorably described by Holly Myers in 2008 as “an Enlightenment-era St Teresa ravished by communion with the invisible forces of science?” What can The Anatomical Venus tell us about ourselves, and what are her implications for us today?


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 11th, 2016.