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Wax anatomical figure of reclining woman, Florence, Italy, 1771-1800

What is odd about this model? It could be described in many ways – beautiful, exposed, sexually alluring. Is that consistent with its role as an anatomical teaching model? Should it have these qualities, or other more scientific ones? Wax anatomical models of this period had different uses for different audiences. In the European anatomical tradition, the standard or normative body was always male. Female bodies were studied in terms of how they differed. In practice this meant a focus on their reproductive capacities – most often they were pregnant, with a foetus as one of the removable pieces. But does this explain the model’s passive, sexualised pose? Female wax anatomical models were often referred to as ‘Venuses’, after the goddess of love and beauty. Reclining on silk or velvet cushions, in positions copied from works of art, they often had flowing hair and jewellery, which added nothing to their anatomical use. They served to show not just physical differences but also gender differences, as perceived in European culture at that time. A third way of understanding the model is to see the exposed body layers as a symbol of nature ‘unveiling herself’ to the medical gaze. Looking deep into the body was considered to be the route to knowledge. In just one model, ideas about art, anatomy, gender, flesh and knowledge were all conveyed. So it is not surprising if you have mixed reactions to the model – it was made that way.

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Glossary: anatomical figure

Highly detailed models of the full human figure for artists, teachers and medical practitioners.

Glossary: pregnancy

The condition of having a developing unborn embryo or foetus in the body. A human pregnancy is usually of 40 weeks gestation.

Glossary: anatomy

A branch of medical science concerned with the structure of living organisms.

Glossary: gender

Has come to refer to the socially constructed roles and differences between men and women; as opposed to 'sex' which refers to the biological distinctions between male and female.