Anatomical Venus image from Morbidanatomy.blogspot.comI have been researching antique human anatomy models and illustrations/engravings on the web in response to a poem I read and wanted to depict about bees making a hive in the heart/ creating honey from past deeds or something to that effect. Loved the poem. Loved the possibilities of the imagery. So Google google google away.
I found interesting cuts that worked for my reference, but even more stunning were these 18th C. wax females called "Anatomical Venus". One is depicted to the left. These Venus figures are shown with a covering that makes her complete, as a nude figure, and then that covering may be removed for this sort of display. An article on 18th C. Florentine, human anatomical models as an inspiration for Italian Horror mentions these figures in the article "Surprising Origins" by Annette Burfoot on the website Kinoeye!:
"La Specola has always been open to the public, and to all classes thereof, so long as they were clean and presentable. As such, this museum in particular, but also the emerging visual culture of modern science in general, opened up the new empirical world to venues beyond the traditional closed doors of its courtly and priestly patrons. Following the practice of dramatic display of dissection (performed in semi-public "theatres"), these models can be read as a type of contemporary popular culture. And one of the display's main draws was the journey into the mysterious terrain of the body's interior, with the most exciting scene of all in the gynaecological room. This is the spectacle of horror that we will now examine.
The eight anatomical rooms are designed to be walked thorough in a certain order: from the outward and visual manifestations of the human body (muscles and skeleton) to the inside and functional aspects (circulatory and nervous systems, organs, and reproduction). Besides establishing a persistent distinction between form and function in modern medicine, this set-up draws significantly on dualistic gendered assumptions regarding life and death, rationality and carnality, fear and desire. It also presages Freud and Lacan's interpretation of the primal scene that underlies so much interpretation of the horror scene as psychic catharsis.
Almost everyone walking into the first room of models (skeletal and muscle systems) recoils at the hyper-realism of the "skinned" figures that surround and fill the area. Skulls sit perched atop rather elegant figures that assume upright and animated postures. Other figures lounge horizontally in large glass cabinets, skinned faces resting on bony and sinewy hands and arms. The carefully crafted and coloured wax reveals every anatomical detail and provides a constant reminder of how time will treat our bodies the same way as death and decay will strip our mortality, layer by layer, to the bare bones.
But these early models of the skeleton-as-gentleman are replaced by more horrific dissections that follow. Ironically these later models have "more to them" in the sense that they display the circulatory, nervous and endocrine systems, thus enabling one to see the skeletal and muscular base covered with veins and arteries, glands and nerves. Although this additional anatomical detail and more precise dissection draws us nearer to the moment of violation or the cutting into the body, these figures remain more mechanistic than organismic.
In contrast, a sense of edging towards the abyss and the horrific is heightened as you move into the next room, where three female models lie prostrate in their respective glass cases. Up to now, no full figure has much in the way of skin or hair, thus appearing rather unbelievable as humans and more like some form of organic robot or cyborg. Inversely, the female figures have plenty of signs of what we hold to be human.
Designed to exhibit the internal organs and the digestive system, the models of the young beautiful women with long plaited hair lie with their torsos cut from clavicle to pubis and the innards pulled out and draped over both sides of nubile torsos. Their heads are tilted backwards exposing the neck and inviting the viewer in, as if in a scene that crosses between Dracula and Jack the Ripper. The female models' faces are masks of a sort of drugged rapture, their lips partially open and their beautiful but unfocused eyes gazing into the distance. Their hands are gracefully poised by their sides, with one of the figures holding her own plait.
This visual feast of gore and the erotic continues. Down the corridor from this large room is a much smaller room on the way out of the museum (resonating with the Bataillian notion of the dreaded lower half of the body as fecal exit, among other things). It is the gynecological room containing "decomposable" or modular female figure: "the doll." This is a hands-on model that is designed to have the front panel of the torso removed to reveal four successive levels of dissection until reaching the deepest level that includes an opened uterus with a five-month fetus inside.
The model in its "closed" form is remarkably worked in terms of rendering a beautiful and erotic female figure. The likeness is of a young woman, again supine with her head tiled back and slightly to one side as if in some state of sexual ecstasy. Her young firm breasts sport erect nipples, her lips are slightly parted and she stares dreamily off into the distance. One leg is slightly bent allowing us to look directly at her external genitals (rendered complete with pubic hair). This model is normally displayed closed.
This "Medical Venus" is surrounded by full-sized models of the female uterus (heavily pregnant in most cases), with large amputated thigh stumps framing the external genitalia and the dissected womb. Skin, fat and muscle are peeled back like a huge orange to reveal either a distended pregnant uterus or a well-developed fetuses or fetuses inside. There are also cabinets containing a large collection of fetuses in all stages of gestation (although the earlier models illustrate homonculism—fully formed miniature humans—rather than embryology as it is understood today).
There are also a choir of dissected newborns, almost all male and positioned in a baby Christ-like pose with little arms reaching outwards to embrace and bless and a slightly tilted head gazing down knowingly and forgivingly on the observer and the doll. Within this womb-like, small and packed room, anatomical femininity is completely exposed—there are no surprises left and the mystery of life itself glows softly in a waxy realism that both shocks and delights. And off in a corner of the gynaecological room is a beribboned phallus—a large penis separate from any other part of the male genitalia with a little bow wrapped around its base. It lies at the foot-end of the doll, near her genitalia, and serves as a phallic pointer within a patriarchal display of curiosity and fetish.
The "Little Venus," created at the same time as the Medical Venus, is at the Museum of the Poggi Palace in Bologna. With La Specola's doll, these two decomposable (as translated literally from the Italian "scomponibile") figures are both female, young and beautiful, and form elegant and erotic presents or packages. Psychoanalytic and feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey analyses the metaphoric implications of Pandora's box in terms of Pandora-as-box. She describes Pandora, along the lines of Creed's all-defining archaic mother, as the "mythic origin of surface/secret and interior/exterior topography." Mulvey uses the myth to illustrate femininity-as-fetish—the psychoanalytical reaction to profound and primordial fears—and draws parallels to Trojan horses (the Christian myth of woman as the origin of betrayal and knowledge), as well as to modern robots and cyborgs (often beautifully feminine and bearing dangerous knowledge as technology-gone-amok).
The female wax figures of La Specola deserve to be included on the list. Their exterior exquisite beauty-as-femininity draws the eye into the terrifying interior of, literally, spilled guts. The mysterious lack, the womb, the vagina are all laid out for rational comprehension and celebration over dark, dangerous, chaotic nature. These models are the "final girl" of the material (disease and early death) and metaphorical (femininity as mysterious betrayer and site of origin) horrors of 18th-century Europe. They are embodiments of our fears of body-based fragility and mortality, yet they bring these same bodies into the ordered world of modern scientific rationalism.
La Specola, who would have known that across the street from the Pitti in Florence is this! Reason to go back soon! Additionally, in this odd search, I found a blog ,Morbid Anatomy.com written by an inspired writer, visual artist, graphic designer, photographer and community builder, Joanna Ebenstein. Ms. Ebenstein is tuned into a wonderful world of study (she runs a public study hall at the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn), community and thought. I have pegged her blog for a RSS feed as her ideas, images and blog is truly an inspiration. Take a look.