Sleeping beauty

However uncanny they might seem to us, the wax figures were primarily teaching tools. According to Ebenstein, “Each pristine wax model at the museum was the product of the careful study of cadavers that were delivered from the nearby Santa Maria Nuova hospital.” They remain close to life. “Over 200 years after their creation, La Specola’s waxworks are still considered remarkably accurate, some of them demonstrating anatomical structures that had yet to be named or described at the time of their making.” Yet in making them more attractive than a cadaver, the waxwork sculptors were also creating art works. As Ebenstein argues, the anatomical Venus evoked “a long history of paintings and sculptures of placid, idealised nudes”. And that’s where the human detail that unnerves us came in. “She is designed to charm in every detail: her glistening glass eyes are rimmed with real eye-lashes, her bared throat is bound by a string of pearls, and she boasts a lustrous cascade of human hair.” This figure is known as ‘the Sleeping Beauty’: a 1925 replica of the original piece from 1767, it’s a breathing wax model by Swiss physician and master wax sculptor Philippe Curtius. (Credit: Madame Tussauds Archives, London. Photo Joanna Ebenstein)

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