With cadavers difficult to acquire and preserve, wax models became important to students and practitioners of anatomy. They aimed to reproduce the human body in a form as complete and true to nature as possible. A mixture of wax from bees and other insects was used to make realistic models which were also fully pliable. Parts of the model could often be taken out to allow students to look inside, or manipulate individual parts. In some ways they were superior to real bodies as an educational tool, because specific structures or systems of the body could be highlighted (and, of course, unlike cadavers, they did not decompose).
The art of wax modelling reached its height in the late 1700s, in Bologna and Florence, with the work of anatomical artists such as Clemente Susini and Anna Morandi Manzolini. Creating models was highly labour-intensive, and many cadavers were needed. Plaster casts of dissected anatomical specimens were taken, which were then used to produce a wax copy. Structures such as membranes were either painted or imitated using thread. The complete model was normally assembled by a modeller and anatomist working together. Models were varnished both to protect them from dust and to provide an illusion of living tissue. Many of them, especially the female models, also had allegorical or symbolic meaning. Such was the beauty of many models that they were not only used for educational purposes but were sought by private collectors and museums.
In the 1800s moulages (waxes showing injuries or pathological change in the body) often formed part of travelling shows across Europe. Part entertainment, part public health education, they often featured the effects of sexually transmitted diseases, acting as a warning of the danger of venereal disease.
Wax modelling is no longer as important in medicine. However, it has not completely died out. Madame Tussaud’s collections continue the tradition of trying to accurately represent the human body - even if the emphasis has now shifted towards reproducing individual celebrities.
A Maerker, ‘The anatomical models of La Specola: production, uses, and reception’, Nuncius: Journal of the History of Science 21/2 (2006), pp 295-321
R Panzanelli (ed.), Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008)
T Schnalke, Diseases in Wax: The History of the Medical Moulage, translated by K Spatschek, (Berlin: Quintessence books, 1995)
J Simon, ‘The theatre of anatomy: the anatomical preparations of Honoré Fragonard’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 36/1 (2002), pp 63-79