Flesh & Wax, by Alessandro Riva
Sardinia’s culture doesn’t exist. For decade after decade, so long and painful, and over dramatic centuries the embedded scholars and the official iconography drew Sardinia as if it were a beautiful or strange land without historical or cultural depth. They restricted their attention to Italy and then, later, to Europe. Unfortunately, or rather deliberately, they were responsible for the incorrect approach and so for a growing cultural deficit. The construction of a united Italy first and a united Europe second had to encompass a multicultural dimension and exploit the peculiar, local expressions, since people, intellectual traditions and movements, as well as the artistic voices that derive from different countries, histories and languages are the first asset and foundation of any new political entity. They represent not only the past, the pillar of the construction, but also the future, the possibility of hope, because they are the seeds for a continuous social effervescence and explosion. The effort to homogenise all the voices or, better, to erase local cultures, resulted in a general impoverishment, in a state of risk.
So Sardinia’s culture doesn’t exist, by definition. This is a blasphemous statement, I know. However it is not enough to speak about our great artists (starting from Grazia Deledda, they were considered only as ethnic abnormalities or pale copies of the best Italian masters, and so a strict review of them is incapable of rejecting the official thesis), but it is necessary to show the wide, complex and incredible cultural background that grew over the centuries. A resource that still exists, powerful and proliferating. My present goal is to put on display different aspects of this culture, and also to explore new pathways and odd intellectual and scientific currents.
Sardinia’s culture is extremely rich indeed. However, I don’ want to follow a chauvinistic or parochial path, which doesn’t belong to me. Culture is universal; culture is communication. So I’d like to open Sardinia’s casket of treasure and share them with you, to pool any comments and ideas and to learn and profit from them.
Having said that, I’m happy to start with an unusual collection and an interesting book, Flesh & Wax, which presents it.
The starting point of this story is Clemente Michelangelo Susini (1754–1814). He was a Florentine sculptor famous for his wax anatomical models that are not only a great tool for understanding and learning about human anatomy (actually he manufactured animal models too), but also artistic masterpieces. He, in fact, studied art at the Royal Gallery, specialising in sculpture. In 1773, he became an apprentice in the wax modelling workshop of the Museo della Specola in Florence, and then the chief modeller. His figures are generally partially dissected, while they are accurately depicted and posed as if still alive, or rather between life and death. Particularly famous are his Anatomical Venuses, strongly erotic and softly delicate, with splendid colours, poses and details. Of course, this series recollects Florence’s Renaissance sculptures and is very different from other models, especially those made by European craftsmen, which show bodies skinned or decaying plague victims in agony (see for example the models at the Semmelweis Medical Museum in Budapest or at the Josephinum Medica Museum in Vienna). For these unique qualities, Clemente Susini is recognised as an artist and is named as the producer of the models.
The second character of this interesting story is the young Sardinian anatomist Francesco Antonio Boi (1767–1850), who stayed in Florence from 1801 to 1805. He commissioned waxworks and assisted Susini in his anatomical dissections, and then put together a collection.
Francesco Antonio Boi was born in Olzai, a village near Nuoro, the son of a farmer. Since he was very intelligent, his family sent him to the Franciscans, in Fonni, another village in Barbagia. He completed his studies there and then attended the University of Cagliari. After graduating as a doctor of medicine, he was appointed Associate Professor and then Professor of Anatomy. On a sabbatical, he visited the University of Pavia, the University of Pisa and finally Florence. At that time, there was no official university in Florence, but there were good schools of anatomy in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. At the beginning of his stay in Florence, Francesco Antonio Boi assumed his maternal name, Pirisi, to learn more without being recognised. But soon his knowledge became evident, and he revealed his name and title. The younger brother of King Victor Emmanuel I of Savoy, Charles Felix, financed his studies in Florence and the wax anatomical models that Clemente Susini prepared, based on dissections made by Boi.
Boi and Susini worked closely together: the anatomical accuracy of the models is, in fact, extraordinary. In 1805, Francesco Antonio Boi returned to Cagliari, taking the wax models with him.
The excellent collection is now at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Cagliari.
For the record, Francesco Antonio Boi, the son of an illiterate Barbagian farmer, became Minister of Health for the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia.
The third and final character of the story is Professor Alessandro Riva. He was born in Milan in 1939 and lives in Cagliari where he is Professor of Anatomy and History of Medicine at the University of Cagliari, and Curator of the collection of Susini’s wax models, which he had promoted.
Professor Alessandro Riva (*) is the author of the book Flesh & Wax, published by Ilisso Publishing House, Nuoro.
Jon Jackson, Ph.D., Dept. of Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, wrote: “Alessandro Riva’s Flesh & Wax is not your ordinary coffee table book. It is a book about beautiful models, but these are not models of the Tyra Banks variety. On the cover is the face of a young woman: her lips are parted slightly, as if to offer a comment or a wry smile toward furthering the conversation happening around her. An otherwise strikingly beautiful woman, except for the unnatural flap of skin that is peeled inferomedially, displaying the sanguineous details of her open orbital cavity and temporal fossa to all who would turn their gaze beyond her lips. She is one of the ceroplast models from the collection of the University of Cagliari, which are the subject of this book. Ceroplasty (Gr., keros, wax + -plasty, from plassein, to shape or mold), as utilized in educational practice, grew into prominence in Bologna, Italy, during the late 17th century. .. ‘Wax’ in the 18th century consisted not of synthetic paraffins, as might be the case today, but rather of beeswax, which was harvested, purified, and then mixed with a variety of substances, notably animal fat and natural pigments. The resulting material could be molded, sculpted, using added features such as real human hair applied to give details as chin whiskers, eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard stubble – all to achieve a profound realism that nonetheless convincingly displayed a body on a dissection table rather than a salon sofa. Such was the level of artistic ability among the wax artists that, once upon a time, to be compared to a wax figure was a high compliment of beauty. .. Viewing the waxes is a powerful experience––from the eerie beauty of the models to the exquisite detail shown in their execution and presentation… The most striking aspect of viewing these waxes, even in the photographs of this book, is how remarkably lifelike they appear, even when pigmented to appear as cadavers. The anatomical waxes of La Specola in general, and the Cagliari models by Clemente Susini in particular, represent teaching models of cadaver specimens prepared collaboratively between anatomist/ dissectors and master artists, each informing the work of the other. The resulting collaborations and their remarkable history make this book a compelling addition to the collection of any anatomist or historian of science.”
In 2001, an astonishing exhibition, Spectacular Bodies, a survey of anatomical art since the Renaissance, was held in London at the Hayward Gallery –
The museum in Cagliari is open to the public and deserves to be better known. The models are emotionally touching. See http://pacs.unica.it/cere/home_it.htm.
Flesh & Wax is really an art book, with splendid illustrations, explanations and an appealing narrative, for those both within and outside the anatomical community. It reveals a different kind of art, a hidden school, which eventually speaks about life and death.
(*) Professor Alessandro Riva, MD: Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and of History of Medicine, Director and Founder of the Museum of Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Waxes, University of Cagliari (Italy). Member of the Fed. Internat. Progr. for Anat. Terminology (FIPAT); Member of the Board of the Italian Soc. of Anatomy and Histology (SIAI); Secretary of the Eur. Fed. for Exptl Morphology (EFEM); Visiting Professor of the University of Miyazaki (Jpn); Hon. Member of several Scientific and Historical Societies.
For his studies on the functional morphology of human salivary and exocrine glands, mainly investigated by TEM and HRSEM, he was, in 2009, the first Italian to be the recipient of the “Distinguished Scientist Salivary Award” of the International Association of Dental Research. His books and many publications, both on paper and computer support, on the History of wax modeling and anatomical iconography have been instrumental in making the Cagliari Collection of Susini’s wax models one of the most well known and admired worldwide.