Throughout history, anatomical studies have played a large part in the search for knowledge about the body's internal mechanisms and life giving forces. These studies have led to many advancements of thought but many are incredible art objects as well.
The Italian painter, Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519), was one of the great innovators in this search to understand the physical working of man. No easy task, considering dissecting corpses for study was outlawed by the Roman Catholic Church during his lifetime. He did this by covertly observing cadavers for his anatomical drawings. Upon his death in 1519 he had accumulated about 600 drawings with notes. However, due to the illegal nature of his undertaking, they were never published in his lifetime. The power of these sketches still reach us today because of their beauty. He give us a glimpse of what lies just underneath the skin-- a microcosm of blood vessels, organs and bones .
As the end of the 17th century neared, the reigns of the church were loosened and an anatomy school in Bologna was able to access the corpses that were needed to make detailed studies. From this school, Gaetano Zumbo was the first to make anatomical models from colored wax giving the models life like details. Soon an entire ceroplastic workshop formed around his methods.
Today in Florence, a collection of these anatomical wax figures still exists in good condition. They are on display at the oldest public scientific museum-- La Specola (The Observatory, 1775). Here, the wax models were created in order to teach anatomy without having to dissect or observe a cadaver. The detail of and accuracy of the wax figurines is astounding. In a time with little refrigeration, approximately 200 corpses or parts of corpses were used to make a single wax figurine. Most of the masterworks at La Specola were made by Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701) and Clemente Susini (1796-1814). The Italian modelers of the 18th century mastered subtle gesture and placement, keeping a little life in their figures. A feeling that creates a sensation as if they have just exhaled their last breath.
|This wax model of a pregnant woman can be taken apart revealing internal organs and systems. Source: Encyclopaedia Anatomica, pg2, c1999 Benedikt Tachen Verlag GmbH, photos by Saulo Bambi|
|Source: Encyclopaedia Anatomica, pg108-115, c1999 Benedikt Tachen Verlag GmbH, photos by Saulo Bambi|
|This model shows the superficial veins and lymphatic vessels.|
Here in L.A. county, I recently went to the Huntington Library’s exhibition Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World and was reminded of the wax collection in Italy. This exhibition in Dibner Hall consists of 4 sections, one representing Medicine. Here, one can see a book, Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847) by George Spratt. This book was intended to serve as a reference for the study and practice of midwifery. Much like the Italian wax models, new layers of anatomical structure can be revealed, in this case, by lifting flaps.
Likewise, a similar book by Andreas Vesalius, the Epitome (Swizerland, 1543) is on view. Within this book, illustrations by Jan Stephan van Calcar accompany Vesalius’s anatomical treatise, De humani corporis fabrica, making it an excellent teaching tool for students at a time when access to cadavers was rare. The Huntington Library has created a plastic duplication next to these two books so one can page thru the layers just like the medical students did back in the day.
|View of book Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847) by George Spratt with interactive replica.|
|Detail of hand-colored lithograph. Illustration depicts twin fetuses. George Spratt, Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847).|
These works tell a story of what lies unseen beneath the surface. Which somehow is a weirdly beautiful and a macabre reminder of our own mortality.