Brain Pickings

The Lady Anatomist: The Wax Sculptures of 18th-Century Artist-Scientist Anna Morandi Manzolini

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In eighteenth-century Italy, the “medical Venus” becomes the professor.

For 2,000 years of medical history, the human body has been inked out, penciled in, the nervous system mapped, the gut lovingly rendered, and the brain lit up in color. To make these renderings, doctors-in-training would for hundreds of years dissect the corpse of criminals, the insane, or the unknown, sometimes even digging up the body themselves or buying one from the black market.

In the eighteenth century, a less gross form of anatomy marked the beginning of a scientific enlightenment in Italy: the anatomical wax model. The Specola collection of anatomical waxes opened to the public in 1775, and with the blessing of a scientifically-minded Pope, societies and lectures opened up new opportunities for public education across class and gender lines. Wax anatomists had to be both incredibly well-versed in medicine and incredibly skilled at sculpture, and few were as talented as Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714-1774, whose extraordinary life and work have been recently collected in Rebecca Messbarger‘s The Lady Anatomist.

Anna Morandi, mouth and tongue (University of Bologna)

Anna Morandi, a set of wax eyes (University of Bolonga)

When she married at twenty-six, Morandi had been trained as a professional artist and could also read and write Latin, the language of academia. She entered into the world of the university as the wife of a professor of anatomy, and when he died of tuberculosis in 1755, Anna, a widow with two children, stepped into her husband’s former teaching position at the University of Bologna, continuing his studies and establishing an anatomical laboratory that even caught the attention of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

Modern anatomical hall at La Specola

Clemente Susini, anatomical Venus (University of Bologna)

“Medical Venuses” were a popular attraction among the anatomical wax models of the day, life-size figures of reclining, naked women, sometimes wearing pearls, whose stomachs were flayed to reveal the female reproductive system. Instead, Morandi tore away the fig leaf of the opposite sex, mastering the anatomy of the male reproductive system.

Anna Morandi, self-portrait in wax (University of Bologna)

Morandi was bold enough to cast her own wax portrait as “The Lady Anatomist,” a richly dressed lady, fingers hovering over a freshly opened brain like it was a breakfast of hard boiled egg.

Anna Morandi and Giovanni Manzolini, muscles of the forearm (University of Bologna)

The Lady Anatomist reveals the life of Anna Morandi Manzolini as one of influence, intelligence, and rigor; a woman who was born into a circumstance and age that allowed her to take hold of the narrative of her life and define herself as a professional scientist.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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