Anatomical Venus

by noticingbones

Anatomical Venus models are both fascinating and just a little bit creepy.  An Anatomical Venus was a model (usually wax) that took the form of an “idealized” (and weirdly sexualized) woman that had removable parts that could be “dissected” and explored.  They first cropped up around the late 1700’s and during the 18th and 19th century became the centerpieces of traveling shows and natural history museums.

The pictures alone are uncanny so I can’t imagine how awesome/weird it would be to see one of these models in person.  The most famous are those that come from the “La Specola” Natural History Museum in Florence, Italy, under the leadership of Clemente Susini.  They frequently are adorned with pearls, real hair, and golden tiaras.  They are displayed in a supine and inviting pose, and are frequently referred to as “Sleeping” or “Slashed Beauties.”  A breastplate would be lifted to reveal the inner workings of a female body in minute detail, usually including a fetus in the womb.

Anatomical Venus models were the highlight of traveling shows, and while their primary purpose was to  provide cheap entertainment (you could gather and watch a “surgeon” dissect her), they also were often used as a way to showcase venereal diseases and to warn against the dangers of STDs.  Further enhancing their educational value, many patrons would commission models for museums.  During the Age of Enlightenment there was a vested interest in providing educational opportunities to the public.  Finally, with anatomy being permitted by society, corpses to study could be hard to come by.  A model was guaranteed (and eliminated any squeamish drawbacks of prolonged study of a corpse).

These models were also groundbreaking for women.  For the first time women could view museums unaccompanied, and several museums employed female lecturers because as women they would have a better understanding of the body.  Women had to view the exhibits during separate hours but it was still a door opened for them that hadn’t been before.  There was still a lot of argument as to whether anatomy was to graphic for women’s “delicate” nature though.

I have such respect for these models, and yet I find them highly disturbing, even more so is the overt sexuality and idealization of a female body showcased in the most famous models. (There are some that are very corpse like).  Why have them in a position that is clearly sexual?  On top of that, why are all of the models women to be cut up, picked apart and dissected?  The mere fact that they are frequently referred to as “slashed beauties” is pretty problematic for me.  And yet they are part of one of the greatest advances of scientific discovery for the time.

I suppose given the increased interest in these models lately, Susini fashioned them after classical art, and now they are often displayed as art in museums.  Perhaps the pose was meant to be inviting, to make the viewer feel a little bit more comfortable with all the gory details of how a body actually works.  I guess I should be more comforted by that, but I still find it in that weird uncanny zone of awesome and creepy at the same time.

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