Wax has the uncanny ability to mimic flesh — plus, organic materials such as hair, teeth and nails can even be embedded in it. That's why some of the earliest realistic replicas of the human body were cast in wax.

Wax body parts were originally used in Christian church services, where offerings often reproduced parts of the human body, representing both healthy and diseased organs. From the 13th to the 17th century, the donation of wax offerings in Italian churches was so widespread that it became a major industry in Florence.

This hyperrealism eventually worked against the medium. People found the replica body parts repellent and the practice eventually declined. By the 19th century, it had all but vanished, finally finding its sole outlet in wax museums like Madame Tussaud's. At the same time, however, the use of wax modelling scientific purposes increased considerably for the study of normal and pathological anatomy, obstetrics, zoology and botany.

Wax figures had been already been used for anatomical study as early as the 16th century. Renaissance artists and physicians used them in place of studying cadavers. Artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Benvenuto Cellini regularly used small wax models to establish the anatomy in their artwork.

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The use of human cadavers in the study of anatomy was problematic. There was of course the difficulty of obtaining cadavers (legally at any rate) and revulsion most felt at dissecting unpreserved dead bodies, which was necessarily limited to winter. A means of preserving cadavers for study was eagerly sought. At first, injections of preservative materials such as colorless or colored preservatives such as alcohol, mercury, lead, tin, bismuth and wax were tried. The results were promising, but decomposition inevitably set in. An alternative method of providing an accurate reproduction of the various organs of the human body was clearly required.

Note the pearl necklace

A collaboration between Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, a Sicilian wax artist, and the French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues near the end of the 17th century resulted in the creation of the first realistic wax anatomical models. They were based on careful study of actual specimens.

The art of wax anatomical modelling quickly spread. A wax modelling workshop was created at the Natural History Museum in Florence at the end of 1771. Between 1771 and 1893 entire collections were created for both Italian and foreign universities. These included models of normal and diseased anatomical parts, obstetrics and botany. The scientific and medical value of these works is indisputable, especially given the available alternatives: cadavers that could be used only once and then for only a limited time, or the two-dimensional woodcut illustrations in the medical textbooks.

The practice soon spread throughout Europe, with studios producing thousands of astonishingly realistic models. All were very accurate from a scientific point of view, but they differed in style depending on the nationality in which the studio was located. Those made by Italian artists were usually refined with everything that could provoke repulsion or disgust in the viewer removed. Models from northern countries such as the UK, the Netherlands or Germany were usually more realistic, almost brutally so, leaning more toward anatomical accuracy than aesthetics. Italian models seem more ‘alive’ while those from the UK seem more "lifeless." The figures produced in Florence seem to be alive and breathing; the faces are languid and their hair of female figures is left loose or gathered into seductive plaits that were often adorned by pearl necklaces (A). On the other hand, English waxes merely reproduced cadavers (B).

Perhaps the most disturbing direction taken by the Italian school was the creation of what came to be known as "Venuses." These were nothing more than excuses to create life-size, hyper-realistic depictions of beautiful dead or dying women.

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Over the centuries numerous collections of wax anatomical models were created throughout the world. It is due to their scientific, rather than artistic, worth that these models have been spared and passed down more or less intact. In fact, most of the collections are still housed in hospitals or in the university faculties of medicine.