La Specola: A Macabre Museum of Post-Mortem Wax People

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
June 12 2014 12:39 PM

La Specola: A Macabre Museum of Post-Mortem Wax People

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

These days, "wax museum" means Madame Tussauds. But in 18th-century Florence, wax museums displayed models of dissected dead people, designed to show medical students what lay beneath the skin of the human body.

The model-making process was labor-intensive and began with an artist pressing plaster against the individual organs of a recently dissected cadaver to create a cast. Wax was poured into the moulds and each organ painted and varnished. All the body parts were then assembled into a wax torso and overlaid with muscles and membranes, which were either painted or simulated with thread.


The works were so uncannily realistic—red, glistening muscles lying taut against knobby bones, encased in an intricate web of veins—that it was felt the artistry deserved a wider audience. In 1775 the figures were put on display at La Specola, a natural history and zoology museum established by the Medici family.

La Specola is still open. Among its most enthralling sights are the wax anatomical Venuses: naked women posed in demure but erotic poses, with their abdominal skin removed and rib cages pulled open to expose the organs underneath. These sensually splayed corpses were looked on with particular fondness by the Marquis de Sade when he visited La Specola in the late 18th century.

View La Specola in a larger map


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
The Vault
Sept. 23 2014 10:24 AM How Bad Are Your Drinking Habits? An 18th-Century Temperance Thermometer Has the Verdict
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 9:42 AM Listen to the Surprising New Single From Kendrick Lamar
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 7:00 AM I Stand With Emma Watson
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.