Florence, La Specola Part II

Although it has taxidermy specimens of practically the entire animal kingdom, La Specola is most famous for its collection of wax models of human anatomy. The oldest pieces in the collection are the late seventeenth-century crèche-like tableaux by Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, horrible graveyard scenes in elegant cases on dainty antique tables.

Gaetano Zumbo revels in death and decomposition in his  Graves. Memento Mori, remember that you shall die, especially if you get the bubonic plague or a what was then a fairly new disease, syphilis.

Zumbo, whose real name is perhaps Zummo, was a shadowy talent. It is said he had to flee his native Sicily after a “nasty episode.” His fame as a wax sculptor reached Florence where Cosimo III commissioned him to do Corruzione II (Rot, part II) and Conseguenze del Morbo Gallico (Consequences of Syphilis, which the Italians refer to as the French sickness and the French refer to as the Neapolitan sickness ) tableaux; Cosimo’s son Ferdinando commissioned Corruzione (Rot, part I) and La Pestilenza, (Plague.) Zumbo worked in Florence from 1691 to 1695 then suddenly left for Genoa.

In Genoa Zumbo sculpted a Nativity and a Deposition and teamed with a French surgeon to make anatomical pieces, especially heads.

Gaetano Zumbo's anatomical heads were famousGaetano Zumbo’s anatomical heads were very famous. And gory! This one even has a bloody nose

A few years later the two argued and Zumbo left for Marseilles where he did more anatomical heads, again in collaboration with a surgeon. Louis XIV granted him exclusive rights to create anatomical waxes and even gave him permission to give anatomy lessons, but Zumbo died suddenly of a hemorrhage (he may have had tuberculosis) and was buried in Saint Sulplice. His tomb was destroyed during the French revolution and Cassandra can only wonder if the contents looked like his work on display in Florence?

The Specola moulage collection really took off in 1771 when the Museum’s director, the anatomist, toxicologist, physiologist and studier of the human eye Felice Fontana, asked Leopold for funding for a workshop for making wax models for anatomy classes. The first modeler was Giuseppe Ferrini. Clemente Michelangelo Susini joined the team in 1773.

Real hair, real teeth, real bridal veils and real silk cushions. The rest is very realistic wax

Doctors admired Susini’s precision while sculptors like Antonio Canova admired his artistry: Susini made death come alive.  He produced about 1000 models for La Specola ranging from individual bits to complete corpses in various stages of dissection and also taught life drawing at the Accademia di Belle Arti.


Could Clemente Susini have done a wax model of a hangover?

The mixture of luxury, beauty and gore can be disconcerting. Cabinets are gilded and inlaid, labels are hand-written in fine calligraphy. Smaller models are displayed on white silk handkerchiefs bordered with fine silver braid, full-length bodies are delicately reclined on violet silk cushions. The beautiful young “Venuses” in pearls have bridal veil sheets and their hands hold their braids in the most delicate of death throes. Is there an erotic element to all of this?

An entire room is dedicated to the female reproductive system and its by-product and here you’ll find one of the few mistakes in the entire collection: instead of a zygote there is a tiny wax model of a homunculus, or miniature man. Because sometimes believing (in preformation) gets in the way of seeing, even if you’re a scientist.

Suggested reading: Rupert Thomson, Secrecy

Suggested Watching: L’Imbalsamatore, Matteo Garrone

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