Henry Wellcome’s Anatomical Venus

25 November 2014

Back in September, we held The Thing Is…Morbid Anatomy at Wellcome Collection. The object under discussion was revealed to be one that blurs the contemporary distinctions between art and science, medicine and religion: the Anatomical Venus. Joanna Ebenstein tells us more about these wax wonders.

The Anatomical Venus has long been the central object of my artistic and scholarly affection. Life-sized, uncannily life-like and dissectible into dozens of anatomically correct wax parts, it – or better, she – was created to teach human anatomy to a general public without need for actual human dissection, which was messy, ethically fraught and subject to quick decay.

The Anatomical Venus is also – as you can see in the image above – a deeply uncanny, strange and beautiful object, one which complicates our contemporary categorical divides and blurs the boundaries between art and science, religion and medicine, eros and thanatos, spectacle and pedagogy, grandeur and kitsch. It is no wonder, then, that she was so popular at the time of her creation in the 18th century and continues to fascinate audiences today.

The finest and best known Anatomical Venuses were crafted in the late 18th century by the wax workshop of Florence, Italy’s Museo di Storia Naturale, better known as “La Specola.” The product of a collaboration between master ceroplast Clemente Susini and scientist Felice Fontana, these uncannily lifelike wax women are adorned with real human hair and gleamingly vacant Venetian glass eyes. Some have strings of pearls encircling their bared throats.

 Anatomical Venus probably modeled by Clemente Susini circa 1790 at “La Specola” (Museo di Storia Naturale) Florence, Italy; Courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein
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Anatomical Venus probably modeled by Clemente Susini circa 1790 at “La Specola” (Museo di Storia Naturale) Florence, Italy; Courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein

 The "Venerina" or "Little Venus" anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.
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The “Venerina” or “Little Venus” anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.

Others wear golden tiaras.

 Anatomical Venus from the workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence at The Josephinum, Vienna; Courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein
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Anatomical Venus from the workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence at The Josephinum, Vienna; Courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein

A handful of these wax women can still be found, reclining in their original Venetian glass and rosewood cases on faded velvet and satin, in a variety of continental anatomical museums. What few people know, however, is that London has its own Anatomical Venus, and that she was almost certainly crafted by the same workshop as her better known sisters.

When I was invited to select a single object from Blythe House – the incredible storehouse of over 100,000 objects collected by Henry Wellcome – for an episode of “The Thing Is…“, I knew it had to be the Wellcome’s own Anatomical Wax Venus.

 Wellcome Collection’s Anatomical Venus. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.
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Wellcome Collection’s Anatomical Venus. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

I had been curious about this particular Venus ever since Kate Forde and I showcased her in the Wellcome Collection’s 2009 Exquisite Bodies exhibition. Although miniature and charmingly doll-like compared to the others I had seen (she is about 3 feet in length), she is still an uncannily charismatic object.

In preparation for “The Thing Is…” I tried to learn all I could about her. Her catalog entry provided me with very little information, but there was an intriguing – and tantalisingly vague – note regarding her provenance: “Probably made at the workshop of Clemente Susini and Francesco Calenzuoli in Florence between 1776 and 1780.”

What, exactly, did “probably” mean? To try to find out, I emailed Selina Hurley, a colleague who works at Blythe House. She referred me to another colleague who provided me with a PDF of this catalog card:

 Catalog card for the Wellcome Anatomical Venus.
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Catalog card for the Wellcome Anatomical Venus.

Although it told me little I did not already know, it did include – a few pages down and under the heading “documentation” – a reference to an article suggestively titled “Italian Anatomical Waxes in the Wellcome Collection: The Missing Link” published in 1977.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this article, written by Linda Allen Deer of the Museum of The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, at the Wellcome Library in a box of papers published by members of staff. The article recounts how, in 1974, a Dr. Maria Luisa Azzaroli of the Museo La Specola visited The Wellcome and, upon asking to see their collection of anatomical waxes, was shown the Venus along with some small standing wax écorché figures.

Struck by their deep resemblance to larger pieces in her own collection, she sent a letter upon her return asserting that the pieces had surely been the product of her own museum in its golden age. “It is our conjecture,’ she states, “that these may have been preliminary small-scale patterns for the life-sized models…and that once these large models were completed, the small models were no longer of any use…We have thought a lot about how these models might have reached London but have not as yet come up with an answer.”

In the article, Deer systematically scrutinises Azzaroli’s assertion from historical, stylistic and technical perspectives. Historically speaking, she argues, small models were known to exist as studies for the larger pieces and the Museo La Specola has internal records of attempts to sell them. Stylistically, she continues, the anatomical makeup (i.e. number, appearance and placement of the internal organs) and modelling of the Wellcome Venus are almost identical to the larger demountable Venus in Florence.

 Wellcome Collection’s Anatomical Venus in various stages of dissection. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.
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Wellcome Collection’s Anatomical Venus in various stages of dissection. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

 The “La Specola” Anatomical Venus in various stages of dissection. Photos by Saulo Bambi, as seen in Taschen’s Encyclopedia Anatomica.
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The “La Specola” Anatomical Venus in various stages of dissection. Photos by Saulo Bambi, as seen in Taschen’s Encyclopedia Anatomica.

Lastly, from a technical perspective, an analysis of the wax reveals it to be “essentially beeswax with an admixture of Venice turpentine,” supporting the proposed 18th century date.

By the end of the article, it is clear that Deer herself is convinced of the provenance of the Wellcome Venus, though she ends by stating more equivocally: “You yourselves must make the final link, in comparing the two sets of figures and in judging the evidence I have tried to present here. But I think the final verdict must include to supposition, at least, that the eight models now in London had their beginnings here in Florence, at a time contemporary with the founding of the collection by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 1770s.”

But how, as Dr. Azzaroli asked in her letter, did the Wellcome Anatomical Venus make its way from Florence to London? Deer reports that a certain A. E. Pratt – hired as an agent to scour France’s antique shops in search of new acquisitions for Henry Wellcome’s ever growing collection – sourced The Venus in 1919 from a Parisian dealer. The article also references some photographs commissioned at that time by Wellcome curator C. J. S. Thompson of the Venus and its now missing case.

Hoping to find these photographs – and to see the original case, which is described by Deer as being very similar to the life-sized ones at La Specola – I went in search of Thompson and Pratt’s original correspondence, which, thanks to Ross MacFarlane, I was able to find in the Wellcome Library archives. Sadly, however, the photographs are no longer stored with the correspondence and, thus far, I have been unable to find either the photographs or any trace of the case itself.

My search continues for the lost case. But, in the meantime, you can find out more about Henry Wellcome’s Anatomical Venus by listening to the podcast of the Anatomical Venus episode of “The Thing is…” with myself and Frances Stonor Saunders. You can listen to a recent instalment of the BBC’s Inside Science in which Adam Rutherford and I pay a visit to The Wellcome Venus; watch The Venus “dissected” by Wellcome Collection curator Kate Forde; and read more about her on The Science Museum’s Brought to Life website.

If you would like to know more about Anatomical Venuses more generally, you can read my piece “The Birth of Venus” from The Morbid Anatomy Anthology.

Joanna is the director of The Morbid Anatomy Museum.