Cabinets of Curiosity
Cabinets of Curiosity, also known as Wonder Rooms, were first created in Renaissance Europe. Cabinets of Curiosity are collections of objects that at the time had yet to be properly identified or categorized. Cabinets were owned mostly by monarchs and upper class, and many are kept as museums today. Their collections usually consisted of geological, archeological, historical or religious finds, as well as art. The more established cabinets even assisted scientific advancements.
The most well known Cabinet of Curiosity in Italy is La Specula, in Florence. La Specula is also is famed for being the oldest museum in Europe. It contains collections that span across three floors, and spill into several rooms. There, they have collections of taxidermy animals, with a significant showing of birds, crystals, animal and human skeletons, and eighteenth century wax models of the human muscular and skeletal structure.
I was especially drawn to the wax sculptures, with the incredible detail and accuracy in the veins, organs, and muscles. The artists were able to achieve this precision by using real organs from corpses. They harvested the body parts from the cadavers of those who were too poor or alone to be given a proper funeral and burial. They would make plaster casts from the dissected remains, and would then use them to make wax models of each piece. The wax was a mixture of resin and dyes of unknown proportion. Each organ had a lifespan of 2 the 3 casts before it became too degraded to use. Each complete wax replication was actually composed of body part from several different corpses. This was due to the fact that the bodies would not remain viable long enough for the artist to make multiple molds, the organs and soft tissue would begin to decompose and deteriorate within hours. They would usually only be able to replicate one piece before the carcass had to be disposed of.
Interestingly enough, all of the women reproduced have the same face, whereas the men look distinctly different. This is because while the men were detailed based on a living person, the women were sculpted following the features of the ideal woman. Each subject was made using real human hair that was also harvested from the cadavers. There was no hair on the legs or arms of the models, but they did have pubic hair. I found this surprising, especially on the women, because Renaissance art traditionally depicts figures without it. Since the women’s faces were formed with the traditional ideal in mind, it’s shocking that they contradicted this model by including pubic hair.
In addition to the model itself, each subject has a corresponding drawing, almost like a map, done by an artist to help explain and expand upon the intricacies of the sculpture. It diagrams the muscles and organs in efforts to both extrapolate upon as well as preserve the piece. It’s like a reference sheet, in case of loss or damage this document will aid in the reconstruction.
Reflecting on these sculptures it’s hard not to be impressed with the dedication and focus of these eighteenth century artists. They were the pioneers of anatomy, the first to strive to understand the structure of the human body, and the first to construct it. The creators of these models intertwined their expertise in art and science, and made advancements in both. The assembled Cabinet of Curiosity they worked towards gained the insight needed to progress scientifically and medically in their time, and became the basis for the knowledge we have today.