These Grotesque 18th Century Wax Models Were Made From Real Cadavers

These 18th-century wax anatomical figures are both gruesome and eerily attractive. Alluring women recline with their organs on display, twirling hair through their fingers, while skeletons strike poses on tables and painted-on blood drips from wax heads. Just like how real remains are used in modern Body Worlds exhibits, 18th-century artists based their stunningly realistic wax models on actual deceased people.

The lifelike wax models helped educate medical students in a time when it was difficult to access real cadavers for them to dissect and study. Just like the 16th-century trend of staging dissections in massive theaters so that hundreds could watch, wax anatomical models exposed the secrets of the human anatomy to a large audience. The Medici family museum, La Specola, opened in Florence in 1775 and made it so that anyone could gawk at the models—including the Marquis de Sade.

The actual cadavers used to make anatomical models include a teenage girl who passed in 1782 while she was five months pregnant. Today, her wax reproduction is in a museum in Bologna, wearing pearls and resting peacefully with her organs on display and preserved for eternity.

  • The Incredibly Realistic Wax Models Were Made From Remains

    The Incredibly Realistic Wax Models Were Made From Remains
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-4.0

    The process of making 18th-century wax anatomical models was labor intensive. It began with a recently dissected cadaver. The artist would press plaster against the individual organs to create a cast. Using wax, artists recreated the organs and then applied detailed paint and varnish to make them look lifelike. In some cases, the body parts would be assembled into a torso, which viewers could take apart piece by piece.

    Other figures were created by injecting wax directly into blood vessels. The tissue decayed with time, leaving only the wax. These methods made it possible for physicians—and curious onlookers—to create incredibly realistic models. 

  • There Was A Body Shortage In 18th Century Medical Schools, So Wax Models Were The Next Best Thing

    There Was A Body Shortage In 18th Century Medical Schools, So Wax Models Were The Next Best Thing
    Photo: Juliatyutereva / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA-4.0

    Today, wax models might appear gruesome or macabre, but in the 1700s, they were important tools for doctors in training. Medical students struggled to find real cadavers to dissect, so rather than turning to grave robbing, as some 16th-century doctors like Andreas Vesalius advised, doctors began to rely on wax anatomical figures.

    These wax models were critical teaching tools. The detailed, life-sized models helped medical students learn about blood vessels, organs, and other parts of human anatomy. 

  • Florence’s La Specola Displays Wax Anatomical Models To The Public

    Florence’s La Specola Displays Wax Anatomical Models To The Public
    Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA-3.0

    The most famous collection of wax anatomical models was and can still be found in Florence. Today, La Specola is the oldest public museum in Europe. Florence’s ruling Medici family opened their personal collection to the public in 1775, welcoming anyone who “looked clean.” Visitors marveled at displays—skeletons towered over visitors, partially dissected remains lay in glass cases. Every human part imaginable was reproduced in wax. 

    Suddenly the mysteries of the human body's interior were exposed for everyone to see: disturbingly realistic lungs, piles of intestines, and stripped blood vessels were all on display to the public.

  • The Wax Models Are So Realistic That One Includes A Bloody Nose

    These wax models served more than one purpose: they were meant to help educate medical students, but they were also designed to titillate and shock viewers. Visitors to La Specola must have gasped at this anatomical model, a flayed head that exposed the muscles, sinews, and veins of the head. It looks more like a horrifyingly realistic Halloween decoration than a medical school teaching tool, probably because it was designed to be on display.

    This particular head is so realistic that the artist even included a trickle of blood running from the man’s nose.

  • Wax Models Of Dissected Women Were Made To Appear Beautiful

    One of the most famous creators of wax anatomical sculptures was Italian sculptor Clemente Susini. He began as an apprentice in the wax modeling workshop of La Specola, and by 1782, he was promoted to chief modeler. Susini is most famous for the style known as the “medical Venus,” where a beautiful reclining woman was shown partially dissected. Susini’s Venuses were posed in a classical manner, combining both agony and ecstasy in one expression.

    Susini’s Venerina, at the Museum of Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, is draped with a necklace made of pearls, her eyes closed while her body is flayed open for display.

  • The Marquis De Sade Was A Fan Of The Provocative Female Models

    The Marquis de Sade, whose explicit writings were banned in 18th-century France, visited La Specola in Florence. Sade was known for writing graphic accounts of intimate exploits, and for his book One Hundred And Twenty Days of Sodom, which he wrote in France's most famous prison, the Bastille. Given his interests, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Marquis de Sade appreciated La Specola's gruesome female anatomical models best.

    The dissected women often wore looks of ecstasy as they lay bare on the table for visitors. One reclining women in a provocative pose even twirls her hair while her chest lays open, her organs exposed to viewers.