The Wax Collections in the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna

I must have been about 4 when I found in my mother’s handbag, a photo of a woman under glass.

Along with my German mother’s wooden rosary beads, pink embroidered hankerchiefs and odd mini metal saints in metal containers, I recall being moved by this beautiful lady under glass.  Also severely disturbed.  Pondering her beauty.  Pondering her body.  Wondering why she was living under the glass?  What was she?  Alive? Dead? Wax? Real?  I had no language to speak about this.

She was a saint.  She was St. Bernadette.  And she was preserved for eternity.

So I was told later on.  I knew nothing about this, just the image early on.

No explanation.  So this image was so powerful to me.  I could even say it formed me.

I was taken away to another realm of mystery, mysticism, corporeal and fantastical coming from this “body” “entity”.  Everything began to make sense from that moment, even though I had no language to express my awe, I was enraptured by death, consciousness, the female body, saints, real/unreal and the pathos of a humanity.  And I recall my fascination and utter curiosity shifted and the questions began their development.  What is this container of flesh?

I wish I could find that image.  It is gone.  Lost.  My mother carried the image back to America from a French pilgrimage in the 1950s.  Were people more open with the dead body being displayed?  It seems so.  Along with this photo, I had found black and white tiny snapshots of peasant people, surrounding a coffin, with candles and crying.  I had found these amongst my mother’s things at an early age.  Death was always present in the small snapshots and around my family  in the 60s and 70s.  But I also think we are maybe at that place again as a society.  We have come full circle when looking at the body, what lives under the flesh.  Maybe in all our technological distance, we will roam back to the viscus and visceral.   The image I had was so raw and pure, literally a gorgeous lady/body under glass.  Very similar to these “Reclining Venus” ladies we will explore here.

Only now, later in my life can I begin to actually investigate all this, trek and make small adventures towards witnessing in person/ the “live” Lourdes Saint Bernadette (another post?) and these spaces where these phenomena were born.  Bologna is one of those places!

The Museum of Human Anatomy in Bologna seems to be a secret like most postings you will find here.

You won’t find it in many “travel guides”.

I only found out about it through my research into medical history.

First, one of the oldest universities dating back to 1088 is found in Bologna. You can visit the old university library and also the incredible 1637 anatomical theatre (note two images below) where bodies used to be dissected, but somehow the PALAZZO POGGI is easy to miss.

Note:  The lector’s chair in the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio with the two statues of “flayed men” made by Ercole Lelli in 1734.  Public dissections as well as several university anatomy courses were held here.

In 1220 Italy, universities began a systematic training of physicians.  Italy has a rich history in this area of anatomy and the study and practice of medicine.

The first medical schools were opened in Italy, the main one in Salerno in southern Italy.  In the 12th century universities were found in Italy, France and England which developed schools of medicine. The 3 most important: The University of Montpellier in France, The University of Padua and University of Bologna.  All learning was from lectures and readings in Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna and Aristotle and very little dissection and clinical work.

The University of Bologna began the training of physicians and attracted students from all over Europe.

In 1711 the Istituto delle Scienze was established.  The goal was to house the entire encyclopedia of modern scientific knowledge in the rooms of an old senatorial residence

In Room 6 you will find Ercole Lelli’s Anatomical Waxworks.  Model made using a real skeleton and wax.  Because body parts beneath the surface muscles needed to be removed, several cadavers often had to be dissected in order to obtain an intact “piece”.

Bologna played a leading role in the reproduction of human figures and parts of the body.

The anatomist Giovan Battista Morgagni founder of pathological anatomy and a student at Bologna and professor at Padua in 1711, played an important role with the institute to envisage a medical-anatomical laboratory at the institute.  This laboratory were meant to channel the skills of scientist, physicians and artists to produce useful materials for the advancement of the discipline and the training of doctors.  The Camera della Notomia was established to produce teaching material and was to show the bones and muscles of the human body separately with respect to the conventional anatomy courses at the public university.  An artist rather than an anatomist was chosen to head the Ercole Lelli.  Called “figure director”, Ercole Lelli specialized in mycology and osteology spending time at the autopsy rooms of various hospitals.  In 1734 he created two sculptures made of linden wood portraying two flayed men supporting the lectors chair in the Anatomical Theatre (see photos).  Following a request by Pope Benedict XIV in 17442 he presented his programme for the institute anatomical room in which he provided a detailed illustration of the wax models needed to illustrate separate bones as well as 8 life sized statues including two nudes, one male and female and six flayed figures showing the different muscle layers down to the skeleton.

It was the 3 dimensional rendering of anatomy treatises.  The extraordinary visual power of coloured anatomical waxworks which eclipsed the dullness of the page and the monochrome of traditional sculptures.  The 3d models offered an advantage.  Understanding the structure of the human body required not only exact representation but also the shape of the organs and their positions within the body.

At the time there was no method for preserving anatomical specimens. Consequently plastic anatomy became the art of reproducing whole human figures of anatomical parts using wax and other media.

The wax was diluted with turpentine and then blended with mastic and tallow. The base was made of bones taken from human skeletons and supported by iron framework that made it possible to set them to the desired poses.

Hemp cloth soaked in turpentine and different muscles were fashioned affixing them to their proper placement.

Room 7: The Morandi and Manzolini’s Anatomical Waxworks.

Anna Morandi and her husband Giovanni Manzolini worked together collaborating on projects with the surgeon Pier Paolo Molinelli.  Their productions illustrate huge scientific progress in wax modeling and anatomical portrayal.  The couple turned to sensory organs, urology and cardiovascular systems.  Galvani wrote:, “that extraordinary lady gave our men and foreigners an example of how to mould, through a single art, even the most insubstantial parts of the human body, the finest and most diaphanous, the ones that would almost elude sight.”   Her elegant renderings were set on clothes, usually dark that were stiffened with wax and were designed to highlight the models and set off details.

Morandi prepared a detailed description of the part represented by each of her models and its function, often including her own scientific commentary.

This team worked as as husband and wife, but it became apparent Anna surpassed her husband in talent and craftsmanship.  Her passion for the human body could be seen in her models, as she seemed to inhabit this natural understanding.  Along with her fascination came a drive to learn more and her interpretations became known in anatomical circles earning respect and a solid reputation.

She also crafted two portrait busts in wax, both of which are currently on display at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna. One is a self-portrait, in which she depicts herself at work dissecting a human brain; the other is of her husband, engaged in similar activity. Her wax models were highly prized while she was alive and long after her death. Some of her anatomical models were so skillfully molded that they were extremely difficult to distinguish from the actual body parts from which they were copied. Furthermore, her acute skill at dissection resulted in her discovery of several previously unknown anatomical parts, including the termination of the oblique muscle of the eye. She held the distinction of having been the first person to reproduce (in wax) body parts of minute portions, including capillary vessels and nerves.

Her collection of wax models was known throughout Europe as Supellex Manzoliniana and was eagerly sought after to aid in the study of anatomy. Her work became the archetype of such models as the Vassourie collection and the creations of Dr. Auzoux made from papier mache, which were the forerunners of those used in today’s schools and colleges. A collection of her models was acquired by the Medical Institute of Bologna and is housed at the Institute of Science in Bologna.  After her death, a bust of her was placed in the Pantheon in Rome. Another portrait in wax, which she modeled herself, was placed in the museum at the University of Bologna and became one of its most precious possessions. (see photo above).

After the death of Anna’s husband, she carried on the craft of wax modeling earning respect and a position as lecturer under her own name, which for a woman at that time was quite a radical and profound achievement.

Note:  These obstetric models made of clay/ terracotta (?) were made by Giovanni Battista Sandri in the 1700s.

Note:  And above we have our friend from earlier posts, Dr. Auzoux, that Papier Mache magician!  These are incredible paper images of the various stages of embryonic development.  Paper, guys!!  Made out of PAPER!!!

The Anatomical Venerina.

After the Morandi Room comes the very darkened room with the Venerina, a copy of the Anatomical Venus found in Florence at La Specola where the Medici Venus rests.  She was modelled around 1782.   The body is pregnant and the internal organs can be removed.  Layer by layer one can then see the uterus with the embryo.  This dissected female body with real hair and eyelashes, display the horror and the beauty of death while preserving the splendor of a so-called immortality under glass.  Like the image I found as a child of St. Bernadette, the decay and putrification of the body did not come into question, only preservation and an everlasting continuum of the sacred untouched purity of the female.  (Untouched?  She is completely disemboweled! And various body parts are lying in front of her!)  (Always reminds me of Jack the Ripper, taking apart the female body and disemboweling her by placing the organs nearby the corpse!)

But as a child, we can look innocently at this superhero sort of “being”!   I mean, to me, I say “superhero” simply in her nakedness, there is power!  i.e. like I can hear her saying, “hey you, go ahead, look at me, go ahead I dare you!”  Having her “contained” like this is truly disturbing to any person, child or adult!!  The female is preserved for infinity under glass, for us to wonder and observe.  The female as the spectacle, to be observed, fawned over, coveted and made precious.  But ultimately to be challenged, to be pushed!  Just my own take.

Notes about the “University System” in Bologna:  What I think is curious to mention as a few professors spoke to me about the concept of “free teaching” which began in Bologna in 1088.  This was independent from the ecclesiastic schools. “Basically the students paid the teachers a ‘collection’ as a gift rather than a salary as at that time science, a gift of God could not be sold.  Gradually such donations were transformed into actual salaries.”

I think the most curious phenomenon in terms of education and the history of it here in Bologna was how subjects were taught.  “The university tried to keep it’s autonomy, separate from political disputes of the time, political powers over the university, scholars of medicine, philosophy, arithmetic, astronomy, logic….” Copernicus began his astronomical observations while studying pontifical law here and Albrecht Durer, Paracelso and Thomas Becket were guests.

This University has maintained a central position on the scene of global culture in Italy.  And from what I could see, Bologna is a University city full of youth, curiosity, rebellion and risk.  The students I spoke to were bold and passionate about their studies, their lives and their futures.  These students embraced the rich heritage of their city and their University.  I sensed they were aware and they were proud of this.  I was impressed by how many students felt it was a privilege to be a student in this time and this place.  And many told me what a great opportunity this was in their life.  I was very moved by this and how many young kids were so open and aware!   Not just about Bologna, but about their responsibility.  They were aware of the situation happening in Lampedusa, with refugees that were trying to survive in their city and the very complex humanitarian issues around all this.  I felt the center around me.  The place where you learn, grow and  contribute to changing the world!!  Anything is possible in Bologna!

Please listen to my small interview with:   Martina Nunes and her trusty assistant Chiara from the Palazzo Poggi Collection.  Thank you so much for your time beautiful ladies!  

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