Weird History These Grotesque 18th Century Wax Models Were Made From Real Corpses  

Genevieve Carlton
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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 bodies are used in modern Body Worlds exhibits, 18th-century artists based their stunningly realistic wax models on the actual dead.

The lifelike wax models helped educate medical students in a time when it was difficult to access real bodies 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 body 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 bodies used to make anatomical models include a teenage girl who died 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 Dead Bodies
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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 from dead bodies. 

There Was A Body Shortage In 18th Century Medical Schools, So Wax Models Were The Next Best Thing
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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 bodies 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
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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 the bodies on display—skeletons towered over visitors, partially dissected bodies lay in glass cases. Every human body 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
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Photo:  madamjujujive/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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 dead man’s nose.