Exploring the human body, among ancient cadaver dissectors, draftsmen, modelers, and… modern restorers.

Apr 23, 2024 | Cutural Heritage, Restoration, Studies and Projects

Finally, the Museum of La Specola finally reopened its grand doors after nearly 5 years of restoration. At the onset of its 250th year, dating back to 21 February 1775, when it was inaugurated by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo di Lorena as the “Imperial and Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History.” The Grand Duke wanted it open to all “only provided they were decently dressed,” with the intention of educating his people.

Thirteen new rooms now enrich the already splendid exhibition, featuring anatomical waxworks, collections of stuffed animals, botanical waxworks, a gallery showcasing Bartolomeo Bimbi’s paintings of vegetables, fruits, and other natural wonders, in addition to the newly presented mineralogical collection. Also on display are scientific models crafted from various materials such as glass, papier-mâché, plaster, and wood.

In particular, the wooden disassemblable anatomies have earned their place in the new rooms, ascending, after 250 years, from the first to the second floor. I had the honor of working on two of these, alongside my colleague Alberto Dimuccio for the wooden part, when they were still preserved inside the Galileo Tribune.

A detail of the Head during restoration

One of these artworks is described as “Half of a Head and Bust with eight Ribs of the proportion of a man eight arms tall, to show the following parts, each about twice the size in reality: the Heart, Lungs, Trachea, Esophagus with nerves and vessels all to be disassembled and ligaments“.

The intention of then-director Felice Fontana was to provide a dissection of the human body: all organs were to be disassembled to display the position of each individual element. The work lasted many years, a collaboration among the various professions present in the Museum, from the cadaver dissector, to the draftsman, to the modeler who created three-dimensional models in wax, using which Luigi Gelati then carved the pieces in wood. Blood vessels were made using strands of various diameters, glued, plastered, and painted by painters, who created multiple shades, necessary for illustrating veins, arteries, and muscles, using pigments in oil.

With Art-Test Florence, we wanted to understand in detail which were the pigments used, thus we performed a battery of scientific analyses: a stratigraphic analysis on some fragments with observation in reflected and ultraviolet light under the stereomicroscope, as well as analysis with the scanning electron microscope, employing X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and FORS (Fiber Optics Reflectance Spectroscopy). The colors we found range from Minium, often used in contact with wood, to cinnabar with particles of red lacquer, to lead white, and, for the coloring of the arteries, Prussian blue.

The other artwork on which I had the honor and pleasure to work is, according to the ancient description, a “Myological Statue with a real bone skeleton upon which all the muscles are mounted, dyed and varnished, except for the diaphragm and the cephalopharyngeal. The statue has neither viscera nor vessels and is supported by an oil-painted tripod in light blue.” A purely maintenance intervention was carried out on this sculpture, including the execution of a X-ray image to verify the condition of the skeleton. Remarkably, each muscle made has the scientific name written on it.

A detail of the Myological Statue
A details of the Myological Statue with the name identifying the muscle

Unfortunately, the delicacy of the various carvings, sometimes in very thin sheets, along with the system of attaching one piece to another consisting of wooden pegs, led to the almost immediate breakage of some parts, necessitating immediate repairs and remakes over time. After several decades of enthusiasm for these works, production was abandoned, making these pieces in the Specola collection truly unique specimens.

The Sistema Museale di Ateneo has organized a series of five conferences to illustrate both historically and technically some of the restorations carried out during the closure period. From 19 May 2024, every Friday from 5 pm (booking required), it will be possible to attend these in-depth sessions, which will take place inside the Hall of Skeletons. Here is the link to the program (in Italian): https://www.sma.unifi.it/art-576-opere-e-restauri-a-la-specola-conferenze-e-visite-guidate.html

Daniela Lippi
Daniela Lippi