Waxing and waning

The art of using wax models to demonstrate anatomy in three dimensions reached its zenith during the eighteenth century in the work of Ercole Lelli, in Bologna, and Clemente Susini, in Florence.

The most renowned collections of wax anatomical models are displayed in museums in these two Italian cities. But the Orfila Museum at the University of Paris V in France also holds important examples, including later works such as this 1847 model by one of the university's own anatomists, which was created for the museum's opening.

If you want to see the Paris collection, you may need to be quick, however. Unlike the Italian museums, the Orfila has struggled to survive, despite having been listed as a French National Heritage treasure in 1991. The university is reclaiming the exhibition rooms, and the museum's entire collection will be packed away into a basement later this year.

The Paris museum's collection has always been subject to dramatic swings in fortune. In the Second World War, for example, many of the wax models made by anatomist Jean-Baptiste Laumonier at the beginning of the nineteenth century were used to make candles, and only a few hundred remain in the collection today.

Despite this, the museum still hosts almost 6,000 historical items. These include, in addition to the wax models, anatomical models using other early twentieth-century techniques and materials. There are also casts of brains commissioned by neuropathologist Paul Broca — best remembered for his discovery of the part of the brain that controls speech — and an extensive collection of anthropological specimens, including Neanderthal and Australopithecus skulls and bones.

The museum can be visited by appointment.


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Schneider, A. Waxing and waning. Nature 434, 439 (2005).

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