The Strangely Seductive 18th Century Anatomical Wax Models

Jun 2, 2016 3 comments

These beautiful wax models of sensuous women lying supine, with their heads tipped back, and lips parted in ecstasy, look like they are from a renaissance painting. One idly toys with her plait of golden hair, while another clutches at a satin cushion. One is crowned with a golden tiara, while another wears a string of pearls around her neck. Yet, each and everyone of them has their abdomen slashed open causing their innards and guts to spill out.

These bizarre beauties called “Anatomical Venuses” were created by sculptor Clemente Susini in the late eighteenth century, and were conceived as a means to teach human anatomy without the need for dissecting real human bodies which was disgusting and messy. Susini’s uncannily lifelike wax models, often adorned with real human hair, were both anatomically accurate and profoundly artistic, drawing praise from both doctors and art historians from all around. During his illustrious career as a medical wax model sculptor spanning several decades, Clemente Susini created and oversaw the production of more than 2,000 models.


Photo credit: unknown

“Since their creation in late-18th-Century Florence, these wax women have seduced, intrigued, and instructed. 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. They are corporeal martyrs, anatomical odalisques, the uncanny incarnate,” writes Joanna Ebenstein, the founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York.

“The Venus and her sisters were intended, from their very conception, not only to instruct, but also to delight and elicit the wonder of a popular audience and, beginning with their public debut in the 1790s, they did just that, attracting throngs of both local Tuscans and visitors on the Grand Tour circuit.”

“One of the most interesting aspects of the Anatomical Venus was how readily available they were to the public,” writes “Patrons were fascinated by these models, and even Victorian women were permitted to visit the anatomical museums of the time. While they were admitted separately from gentlemen, women in Victorian England were encouraged to visit the museums and learn anatomy both to better take care of themselves and their families. The practice was, however, somewhat scandalous, with some arguing that anatomy was too indelicate for respectable women.”

The original Anatomical Venus was created between 1780 and 1782, and can still be seen at the Museum of Zoology and Natural History, best known as La Specola, in Florence, Italy. Other copies, referred to as “Slashed Beauties” or “Dissected Graces” are also displayed in various medical museums around Europe.


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Anna Faherty/Flickr


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: Joanna Ebenstein/Morbid Anatomy Museum


Photo credit: BBC


Photo credit: BBC


Photo credit: Huffington Post


Photo credit: Huffington Post


  1. I wanted to add a correction. The Anatomical Venuses were created in the 18th Century - that's the 1700's; the Victorian Era spanned the reign of Queen Victoria, from th3 1830's until her death in 1901. The Venuses preexisted the Victorian Era by 100 years.(The sculptor died at least two decades before the Victorian Era began, in fact.) Not trying to be a troll, I promise. Just thought you might want to be accurate in your headline/title. I caught the error because I've been interested in these teaching models for years, so already knew about them. They're amazing!

    1. Thanks for the correction. I have changed the title.


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