Waxing Anatomical

01 21 anna morandi
photo credit: warburg. licensed under creative commons

Today is the birthday of Anna Morandi Manzolini, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1714. Anna was an anatomist and anatomical wax modeller with an international reputation. She was also Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna. You might be surprised to find a female university professor in the eighteenth century, but in fact, she was one of several. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the painter Elisabetta Sirani, that Bologna had a very liberal attitude towards the education of women.

The study of anatomy had always been a tricky subject. There was the difficulty of obtaining bodies in the first place. Then, with no way of preserving their specimens, it quickly became extremely unpleasant. Dissections were mainly confined to the winter months because the cold weather meant that the cadavers would decompose less quickly. The idea of using wax to make anatomical models was developed towards the end of the seventeenth century, by wax artist Gaetano Giulio Zumbo and surgeon Guillaume Desnoues, in Florence. Wax was an ideal material. It could be coloured, it could be moulded easily and, when it was varnished, a really good anatomical model was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Wax models as an aid to anatomical study was brought to Bologna by Ercole Lelli in the 1730s.

In 1736, Anna Morandi married Giovanni Manzolini who, at the age of forty, joined the school of Ercole Lelli where he learned the art of anatomical wax modelling. Three years later, he was Lelli’s chief assistant. Three years after that the two fell out because Giovanni did not get the recognition for his work that he deserved and he resigned.

After leaving Lelli, Giovanni opened his own wax modelling studio and school of anatomy. Anna, who had trained as an artist, assisted her husband in his work. She learned wax modelling, anatomy and how to dissect cadavers. Together, they were recognised by both artists and anatomists throughout Europe. Giovanni became Professor of Anatomy at the university whilst Anna continued to teach anatomy in their home studio. While she was doing all this, she also gave birth to six children, four of whom died in infancy. When her husband became ill with tuberculosis, she began to lecture in his place at the university. In 1755, he died and she was awarded an annual stipend by Pope Gregory XIV in recognition of her skills. She continued her anatomical work and became a member of the Academy of Arts, which was part of the Institute of Science. In 1760 she was made Chair of Anatomical modelling at the University of Bologna. She remained at the university despite repeated offers from the Royal Society in London and the court of Catherine the Great in Russia.

Anna and her husband used actual body parts to make the casts for their models. So they still had the awful smelly job of real anatomical dissections. Over time they had access to over a thousand unclaimed bodies from the public hospitals of Bologna. Anna’s skill eventually surpassed that of her husband. She was able to reproduce capillary vessels and nerves in minute detail. Her models were bought, not only by teaching institutions, but also by private collectors. Visits to her studio and anatomical wax museum became a popular stop on the Grand tour. Anna’s particular specialities were the sensory and reproductive organs. Many of her models can still be seen in the collection at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna. You can also see the portrait in wax pictured above, which Anna made herself, it shows her at work dissecting a human brain. It is a very different sort of female portrait that is usually associated with anatomical wax modelling. Usually, the woman is the subject of the dissection, lying naked on the table, in an alluring posture and usually pregnant. Anna looks like a capable woman, just getting on with her work. Sadly in this picture, she’s had the tools of her trade, which were in her hands, taken away. But they have now been restored to her.

Wax is still used for anatomical modelling. If you want to take a look at a modern wax sculptor, we found this video of Eleanor Crook, from the Wellcome Collection. It’s brilliant.

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