Art and Artifacts Revealing Bodies
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Portraits in Wax

Detail of 'Portraits in Wax'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell, © 2000. Click for a larger, full image.

Portraits in Wax

The tradition of fine wax portraiture began in Italy as early as the 13th century. At that time, well-to-do patrons often commissioned artists to construct life-sized portraits of them for display in churches, thus revealing their personal and social power and prestige. Many finely-crafted wax models from the 19th-century are currently in medical collections in Europe and at the Mutter museum in Philadelphia, among other places in the U.S.

Some of these wax portraits were modeled from people who suffered from identifiable medical conditions. In the late 17th century, the sculptor Zumbo, having witnessed the devastating effects of the bubonic plague in both Naples and Venice, made small allegorical scenes in which he depicted‹in wax‹the effects of disease on human beings. The anatomical waxes in other museum collections came after Zumbo, but the lifelike depictions of various diseases remind me of his work.

Some very fine specimens depict rashes, pox, diseases of the eye, and other skin conditions. This wax head of a boy, sculpted by Guiseppe Astoni in the 19th-century, displays the effects of a skin disease.

Wax Medical Model

Detail of 'Wax Medical Model'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell, © 2000. Click for a larger, full image.

Wax Medical Model

This head comes from the Medical School collection in Madrid. The veins, arteries, and nerves of the neck and head are beautifully rendered in wax. Anatomical wax models like this one were used to teach anatomy to young doctors in the 19th century.

The Revealing Bodies exhibition at the Exploratorium features an 18th-century wax anatomical model of a female, on loan from Museo La Specola in Florence. Known as a "medical Venus," it was created by the renowned Italian artist Suisini. This model, which revels perfectly rendered organs, has never before been shown outside Florence.


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