"La Specola" - Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università degli Studi di Firenze

"La Specola" - Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università degli Studi di Firenze is a museum located in Florence (Via Romana, 17)

The Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History was the first name of the museum, which was founded in 1775 by Peter Leopold of Lorraine in Palazzo Torrigiani, near Palazzo Pitti; the museum was opened to the public on February 22, 1775.


Facade of "La Specola" Museum, Palazzo Torrigiani

It is one of the oldest scientific museum in Europe: it holds the largest collection of anatomical waxworks in the world, manufactured between 1770 and 1850 and over 3.5 milions animals, of which only 5000 are currently in view to the public. The museum is also the first of its kind to display the entire world of nature and to be opened to the public; the original idea and intent of Peter Leopold were in fact to spread the knowledge of nature among his citizens.
Palazzo Torrigiani soon became unable to contain the constantly expanding collection and for this reason the Museum of Natural History was then divided into 6 separate sections in different sites of the city.
The original site still houses the Zoology section, the anatomical waxworks, the Tribune of Galileo and the old observatory (Specula, in latin); for this reason, nowadays Palazzo Torregiani is better known as "La Specola". The Tribune was inaugurated in 1841 on the occasion of the Third Congress of Italian Scientist; several important national and international scientific events are still held here.1

From the origin to our current days: the waxworks collection.

The direction of the institution was initially offered to Felice Fontana, who distinguished himself for his multifaceted talent. The waxworks collection is considered a true three-dimensional treatise on anatomy, since it is accompanied by a rich set of plates performed using various techniques (tempera, watercolor, pencil) by various artists, each one explaining an individual wax preparation. The drawings were displayed next to the corresponding wax model. They were made with absolute accuracy of details in bright colors and were set in rosewood-veneered frames.
The main purpose of the anatomical wax modeling was certainly educational as it allowed to teach anatomy without the direct study of the cadaver. The educational purposes is obvious and relevant, but these waxes are also considered real pieces of art.2


Rooms of "La Specola" Museum

The La Specola wax modeling workshop was active from 1771 to the second half of the 1800s and was created by Felice Fontana, the first director of the Imperial Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, who promoted this project with great initiative and interest, working on the production of the models as anatomist and dissector. Clemente Susini also worked in this workshop and soon became the best and most famous wax modeller of the Florentine school. He was helped by excellent anatomist like Paolo Mascagni, Tommaso Bonicoli, Filippo Uccelli and Felice Fontana himself.

At present, La Specola houses 513 cases containing waxes of human anatomy and 65 of comparative anatomy, plus 5 waxes by Gaetano Giulio Zumbo. In total, there are 1400 pieces and almost all of them are displayed. Each preparation is still held in its original wood and glass case with a numbered metal plate and paper label describing the work.3


Anatomical waxes in "La Specola" Museum

Waxwork technique and artists

The use of wax for modeling figures has ancient origins, especially in art, and it is due to purely aesthetic purposes and technical needs, such as the ease of working.
The study of human anatomy directly on the cadaver was strongly opposed during the seventeenth century from both clerical and civil authorities. However, in the middle of the fifteenth century anatomical drawings and treatises began to appear, generally created by artists and sculptors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Tiziano.4
At the end of the seventieth century, Bologna was considered the home of the first school of wax modellers.


Gaetano Giulio Zumbo started his activity in this city, creating anatomical waxes and using for the first time also different colored waxes. Most of his work is now housed in La Specola. Zumbo's artwork represented the first examples of the use of wax to create anatomical models.
We have very little remains of the original equipment used for the production of the waxes but, studying the historical documents, we know that there were copper vessels of various sizes where the wax was melted, modeling tools, iron wires, balances, trivets, marble slabs, pots and glass bottles. Also many cadavers or body parts were used and their number is astonishing: more than 200 to make just one statue; in fact anatomist required a large quantity of material to produce an accurate dissection that the modelers could then reproduce.5


The production technique is not known, but it has been deduced thanks to various documents and letters treasured in the State and in the Museum archives. In reality, each artist had its own technique which he - like all craftsmen - did not like to be divulged. In general, once the piece to be reproduced was prepared by the dissectors, an exact copy of it was made in clay or cheap wax and it was used to make the plaster mould. However the mould could also be made directly on some parts, such as bones. The most complicated part was the construction of the final model, which required great precision, experience and skill. The main base was beeswax or virgin wax; this may be also mixed with other vegetable waxes and also turpentine and other fatty substances to increase the melting point and make the final wax more elastic. Various other substances could be added to the mixture to obtain particular effects or color. The statues were made from several pieces usually bounded together with an internal metallic support. After the mould was opened, the piece were cleaned, finished and then polished; striations were made with special equipment, organs, vessels and nerves were applied to the piece with a final layer of transparent varnish to give more brightness. All these steps were constantly followed by anatomists in order to produce a perfect model.6
From several years around 1790 modellers' diaries were kept in which each operator recorded the work done each day.


Modellers' diaries (1793), details

In recent times, anatomist who have examined the waxes have realized that these models are not only correct from an anatomical point of view but also include organs and small glands that had not been known when the models were made. Some waxes include anomalies, which tell us how truly and accurately the modelers reproduced what they saw in the dissected cadavers.7
Felice Fontana died in 1805 but the wax model workshop continued its activity.

La Specola’s masterpieces

The Medici Venus is probably the most famous and admired work; it is the reproduction of a female figure lying on a white linen; the characteristic of this wax is that her body can be disassembled into several parts (layers) that can be then analyzed individually.8


Medici Venus, photographic triptych

The Skinned Man is another famous wax in an half-reclining position that recalls the position of Michelangelo's bodies masterpieces.


Skinned Man, photographic triptych

It is easy to understand why these real-size statues are the pieces of greatest emotional impact for the visitors of the museum; in reality there are also several smaller single pieces of the body like feet, heads and brains, muscles and nerves that represent marvelous example of this form of art and science.


Detailed photographs evincing thoroughness of anatomical waxes in "La Specola" Museum

Most important visitors throughout the years

From the opening of La Specola, important people came and visit this outstanding collection of anatomical waxes, among which the Emperor Joseph II, the Marquis de Sade and Napoleon, who ordered 40 cases of waxes for Paris, now located in Montpellier.

The famous poet J.W.Goethe during his trips to Italy also visited this museum and was astonished by these pieces of art, as it is witnessed in his letter to Beuth: "Plastic anatomy is the subject; in Florence it has been pursued at a high level for a long time, but This is one of the most famous and admired works. nowhere is it undertaken with such success as there, where by nature science, art, taste and technique are fully active. If the establishment of such place were to be proposed at Berlin, […] send an anatomist, a sculptor, a plaster modeller to Florence, since this special art is taught there".9

  • Photos, main text and page layout by Giacomo Ambrosini moc.liamg|31inisorbma.omocaig#| and Matteo Pileri moc.liamg|59irelip.oettam#| (December 2015), courtesy of the "Museo di Storia Naturale dell’Università degli Studi di Firenze"


  • Encyclopaedia Anatomica: Museo La Specola Florence. Cologne: Taschen, 2004. ISBN 3-8228-3848-9
  • Barsanti, G. and Chelazzi G., Il Museo di storia naturale dell'Università di Firenze. Volume 1, Florence: Firenze University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-88-6453-003-1
  • Barbagli F. and Pratesi G., Museo di Storia Naturale dell'Università degli Studi di Firenze. Guida alla visita delle Sezioni. Florence: Polistampa, 2009. ISBN: 9788859606796
  • Museum's official website

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