World ? Europe ? Italy ? Florence

The Waxen Bodies of La Specola

A wax model head dispalyed at La Specola
Photo courtesy of La Specola
Daily; not Wed
Hours: Thu-Tue 9am-1pm (until 5pm Sat)
Life-size anatomical wax reconstructions of bodies, plague victims and other unsavoury things are on display at the La Specola, the zoological section of the Natural History Museum in Florence.
The museum houses a huge collection of zoological and anatomical specimen reconstructions in wax, begun in the mid-16th century by the Medicis, the rich and powerful family that ruled Florence in its Renaissance heyday. By 1771, the collection had become so extensive that a building was required to house it: the Palazzo Torrigliani was acquired, and in 1775 it was inaugurated officially by the Grand-Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine as the Imperial Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History.

The museum today contains 34 separate rooms, ten of which are devoted to human specimens, the rest containing animal specimens and reconstructions of all kinds. The anatomical models were created between 1771 and 1850 by Florentine artisans using highly skilled and elaborate techniques. Over 1400 models were created, with the purpose of allowing the teaching of anatomy without perilous and unpalatable direct contact with corpses. Clinical, morbid and impeccably executed, the exhibits are a fascinating example of the skill and scientific knowledge of 18th and 19th-century anatomists.

Among the curious highlights of a visit are the almost complete works of Gaetano Zumbo, a famous 17th-century Florentine ceroplasta, or waxworker, who among other things created a series of works entitled the Cere della Peste, three representations of bodies in the throes of the plague. There is also a model of a decomposing head, created with wax superimposed on a real human skull, and a collection of miniatures portraying the various stages of the ravages of syphilis. Many of the items in the collections were damaged during an inundation in 1966, but most have been reconstructed and appear today in all their former "glory".

The palace has acquired the nickname La Specola on account of the tower-like astronomic observatory added to the building in 1789.
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