The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic by Joanna Ebenstein
D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2016. 9781938922916
I pick up books with awesome photos of creepy beautiful stuff and then feel guilty when I have no interest in or lack the attention span to read their terribly serious academic prose. This time I said, “No More Guilt!” and skipped most of the text.
Here’s what you need to know: When it was hard to get corpses to dissect, in order to learn medical anatomy in 1700s Italy, some extremely talented artists created life-size and near-life-size wax sculptures of women with visible internal organs. The interesting part is that unlike the models of men who were shown without skin at all, standing up and doing things, the women were laid out like Sleeping Beauty, nude, eyes closed, with the skin of their abdomens spread open like a garment. They were extremely realistic, with human hair and eyelashes, and were usually both pregnant and sexy. Just in case you thought, “Well, 1700s Italy — everything was like that,” it didn’t take long until these ladies were made to be displayed in the European equivalent of sideshow tents. You know, “educational” nudity, nudge nudge, wink wink.
Get this book for the pictures, it’s totally worth it. It’s put out in cooperation with Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum which unfortunately doesn’t seem to have any of them on display. In the back of the book there’s a list of museums and universities with anatomy exhibits of this sort.
Other books for your creepy art shelf: Paul Koudounaris’ amazing books on the artistic use of skeletons all over the world: Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints From the Catacombs, and The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.