No offense to modern horror movie directors, but when it comes to pioneering straight-up ickiness, anatomists and biological sculptors from the late 1600s to mid-1800s had today's fright-masters beat by centuries.
Indeed, the inability to preserve corpses properly saw many students of the human body turning to intricate wax anatomical models that eerily mirrored organs, bones, and other sundry viscera. As you will see below, these models ranged from grotesque to goofy to gorgeous.
And like any Z-grade horror auteur worth his salt, these wax modelers often added a smidge of titillation in the form of the "anatomical Venus," a specific kind of sculpture that depicted a beautiful woman in repose, organs splayed out willy-go-nilly. But the anatomical Venuses didn't always come across as deceased.
No, sometimes their expression ranged from jovial to seductive to terrifically stoned. Roberta Ballestriero delves into the history of wax models and these anatomical Venuses in the following and enlightening 2010 article from the Journal of Anatomy:
The achievement of having originated the creation of anatomical models in coloured wax must be ascribed to a joint effort undertaken by the Sicilian wax modeller Gaetano Giulio Zumbo and the French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues in the late 17th century. Interest in anatomical wax models spread throughout Europe during the 18th century, first in Bologna with Ercole Lelli, Giovanni Manzolini and Anna Morandi, and then in Florence with Felice Fontana and Clemente Susini. In England, the art of anatomical ceroplastics was brought to London from Florence by the sculptor Joseph Towne. Throughout the centuries many anatomical artists preferred this material due to the remarkable mimetic likeness obtained, far surpassing any other material [...]
During the 19th century the dissected anatomical statues of reclining women came to be known as ‘Venuses', referring to the Venus de Medici created by an unknown Greek sculptor at the beginning of the 3rd century BC and on show today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The generic term ‘Venus' was later applied to any idealized female figure including those produced by prehistoric sculptors [...]
In certain cases the scientific purposes of the anatomical waxes were just an excuse for depicting a beautiful, sensual dying woman. One of the most famous examples kept in ‘La Specola' is undoubtedly the Medici Venus. This sculpture was reproduced in different sizes and postures and there are numerous copies in Italy and other countries (Bologna, Vienna, Budapest, Barcelona). The name itself plays with the ambiguity of Venus of Medici, the most famous ancient work kept in Florence at the time of the Medici family, and medici being the Italian for medical doctors.
Here's an article on how to conserve these fascinatingly weird cross-sections. You can see some anatomical wax sculptures below, and further intriguingly gruesome photographs can be found at Florence's famed collection at the aforementioned La Specola museum (such as the dogs at left, via Curious Expeditions) and the Anatomical Theatre Flickr set. As London's Science Museum explains of this piece (circa 1770) below:
This model, probably from Florence, Italy, was used in the study of anatomy, and shows the body's vital organs. The figure is made of bees-wax and hair, and is shown with its detachable front opened to reveal removable internal organs.
Here are some models from the Paris Museum of Natural History in the 1880s.
"Hello, boys!" It's an 1800s model from the Museu d'Història de la Medicina de Catalunya!
Here's an extremely probing diagram from the Nautilus Gallery in Modena. You can also see the world's least sexy striptease, as presented by some obstetric models from 1773-1775 by Giovan Battista Manfredini. (There are more shudder-worthy photos over at the Anatomical Museum in Modena's photo collection.) Finally, starting tomorrow, several wax anatomical models will be on display for an exhibit at the Museum of London.
For more oddball anatomy diagrams from generations past, see the erotic pin-up medical school textbook penned by Duke University professors.