Anatomical Venus

'Anatomical Venuses' are extremely realistic models of idealised women. These figures consist of removable parts that can be 'dissected' - a breast plate is lifted to reveal the internal organs, often with a fetus in the womb.

In the 19th century, the anatomical Venus formed the centrepiece of museums and travelling shows of all kinds, and possessed great power to draw crowds. 'Know thyself' was a common phrase associated with the exhibition of such models, suggesting their educational value.

Below is an illustrated anatomical Venus. Four hands point to different elements - these relate to four different types of people who would have had a particular interest in these wax models in the 18th and 19th centuries. Roll over a hand to reveal a character and find out why the anatomical Venus was of such interest to him/her.

Anatomical Venus Victorian lady hand Victorian anatomist hand 18th century patron hand Travelling fair entrepreneur hand
Old scroll


Every person must pay at least one visit.

Roll over the hands to discover the eminent public utility of the wax model.

Victorian lady

Victorian lady

Women were allowed into anatomical museums unaccompanied - one of the few attractions in 19th-century London open to them. They were admitted separately from men, with different visiting hours.

Some museum proprietors actually employed female lecturers to explain the displays, arguing that women must have an understanding of health, as they were nurse and teacher to the family.

Despite this apparent freedom there was much scandal among the medical profession over whether anatomy was too indelicate an activity for respectable women.

Victorian anatomist

Victorian anatomist

Following the Anatomy Act of 1832 there was greater interest in learning anatomy through the use of wax models rather than corpses.

While corpses were often in short supply, the availability of an anatomical model could be guaranteed. Models also allowed for prolonged study without the revulsion that handling a dead body over time could cause, and they were favoured among anatomy teachers who set up their own collections to illustrate their lectures.

18th century patron

18th-century patron

In the late 18th century, the Grand Duke founded his natural history museum with one of the first permanent public displays of anatomical wax models. With typical Age of Enlightenment ideals he sought to educate the population, believing that 'everyone who gathered knowledge would be a happier man'.

Other patrons, such as Joseph II, sought to emulate his collections for their own people and in 1771 the Duke set up a wax-modelling workshop. It was in these Florentine workshops that some of the most beautiful anatomical Venuses were fashioned.

Travelling fair entrepreneur

Travelling fair entrepreneur

In the early 19th century, anatomical models were being shown in travelling funfairs and sideshows.

For a shilling, members of the public could wonder at the beauty of the anatomical Venus as she was 'dissected' by a proposed surgeon, or be repulsed by lifelike freaks of nature and studies of venereal diseases.

Although the fairs favoured entertainment over instruction, there was a genuine desire to alert all classes to the dangers of libidinous behaviour.

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