Cere Anatomiche (Anatomical waxes) is an exhibition conceived in collaboration with La Specola, which is part of the Museum of Natural History and Museum System of the University of Florence, and the Canadian film director and screenwriter David Cronenberg.
The exhibition is the latest iteration of a research project with which Fondazione Prada reveals collections of great value from ‘guest museums’, offering unexpected interpretations and visions of cultural heritage by including a historical collection in a contemporary cultural context.
La Specola, currently closed to the public for redevelopment works of its historic venue, was created in 1775 and is one of the oldest science museums in Europe. It contains over 3.5 million animals, the world’s most extensive collection of eighteenth-century anatomical waxes and the unique collection of Sicilian wax modeller Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656–1701). 1,400 pieces of the extraordinary collection of anatomical waxworks were made between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to obtain an actual educational-scientific treatise that, without the need to resort to the direct observation of a corpse, would illustrate the anatomy of the human body.
This project develops in two complementary parts. An exhibition features a selection of thirteen eighteenth-century ceroplastic works from the renowned collection of the Florentine museum, and a series of seventy-two exhibition copies of anatomical drawings gathered in nine vitrines. In particular, Cere Anatomiche features four reclining female figures, including one of the most relevant works of La Specola’s collection, the so-called Venus, a rare model with detachable parts famous for its beauty.
An unprecedented short movie titled Four Unloved Women, Adrift on a Purposeless Sea, Experience the Ecstasy of Dissection, realised by David Cronenberg in the spaces of La Specola, provides an alternative gaze on the four female wax models on display, exploring themes such as the fascination with the human body and its potential mutations and contaminations. Cronenberg’s film reveals the vivid and unexpected dimension of the ceroplastics, so far known for their static and severe nature, to generate a plurality of new emotional responses, intellectual impressions, and intense feelings.
As stated by the film director, “The wax figures of La Specola were created primarily as teaching tools that unlocked the mysteries of the human body for those who could never access the relatively rare corpse dissection sessions of universities and teaching hospitals. But in their effort to create certain partially dissected full figures whose body language and facial expressions did not display pain or agony, did not suggest they were undergoing torture or punishment or even surgery, they happened to produce living characters who seemed to be in the throes of ecstasy. It was this startling choice on the part of the sculptors of these figures that captured my imagination: what if it was the dissection itself that induced that ecstasy, that almost religious rapture?”
The exhibition Cere Anatomiche takes the form of a double contribution in which the scientific narrative and the artistic one are shaped in two independent set-ups designed by the creative agency Random Studio. On the upper floor of the Podium, the main exhibition space of Fondazione Prada, La Specola’s waxes are displayed with a scientific museum-like approach. In contrast, on the ground floor, the same works merge with the director’s imagery and become the protagonists of an enigmatic process of metamorphosis.