“Ooooooooooooo!” I heard a chorus of horrified exclamations as a group of Italian school children entered the Zoological Museum in Florence. It housed one of the most interesting and bizarre assortments of artifacts I’ve ever seen.
Of the museum’s three collections the most fascinating and eerie was one of anatomic waxes created by artists in the 1600’s to help medical students study the human body and learn anatomy without having to actually touch a cadaver. There are ten rooms lined with case after case that display wax bodies and body parts. The bodies have been split open and all the veins, blood vessels and fat are detailed.
Perhaps most intriguing are 38 models showing how a baby develops in a mother’s uterus during each stage of pregnancy. Modern day medical experts are amazed at the accuracy and detail of these models that were made over four hundred years ago.
The nearly two thousand wax pieces painted in bright reds, greens and yellows have a sort of macabre beauty about them. Whether you are walking by a bony hand, its skin torn back so you can see the tendons, muscles and blood vessels; or a model showing in minute detail what a fallopian pregnancy looks like; you can’t help but admire the skillful artist who created these wax works.
It is clear Clemente Susini; the sculptor who molded and painted all the figures is still admired by artists today. On our visit to the Zoological Museum in 2009 we saw numerous art students sitting in front of the various displays of human body parts and trying to do sketches of what they saw. One young artist sat perfectly still staring at a human head. It had been titled sideways and the skin pulled off the skull so all the brain matter spilled out on the table for examination. There were moments in the Zoological Museum when I felt like I was in the middle of a Frankenstein movie set.
The second collection of the museum contains thousands of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, fish and amphibians. The Medicis, Florence’s ruling family in the period between 1360 and 1737 sent explorers all over the world to collect items for this nature museum. Some specimens are stored in formaldehyde but many have been stuffed using what are obviously very old-fashioned and primitive methods of taxidermy. You can see literally every animal species here from the smallest butterfly to a huge sharp toothed grinning hippopotamus.
The last collection in the museum houses display boxes of fairly gruesome scenes created in the late 1600’s by a wax artist named Gaetano Zumbo. One is entitled The Effects of Syphilis and another The Plague. Each features a multitude of decaying and dismembered corpses. Little babies lie dead beside their mothers whose bodies rest on piles of human skulls. Toothless, white-haired, naked elderly are splayed on the rocks outside a cave. It’s a graphic reminder of the devastation brought about by disease in the time before modern medical technology.
As I made my way out of the Zoological Museum a busy, bustling crowd of middle school students entered one of the rooms filled with eviscerated wax cadavers. Oooooooooooo they screamed almost in unison horror. Even though I don’t speak Italian it wasn’t hard to guess what they were probably talking about as they walked beside the display cases.
The Zoological Museum in Florence isn’t the easiest place to find. It’s on a narrow winding street and you have to walk up four flights of stone stairs to reach the floor where the displays are housed. It’s worth the steep climb!
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