Vol 61 No 3  2021 

Page 5

Museums that feature Wax models

By  Dr. Robin A. Cooke

The technique for making wax models was first developed in the 1500’s.

During the 1600s in the city of Florence in northern Italy, the technique was refined.

A talented wax modeller at the time, Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701) specialised in making small models of human bodies in various stages of decomposition.

Cosimo Medici III (1642-1723), ruler of Florence, commissioned Zumbo to make some models of victims of the plague which was prevalent in Europe during the middle ages.

The rosewood cabinet that contains the models of the plague that were made by Gaetano Zumbo.

A close view of the person who died from the plague. It was called the ‘black death’ because the majority of people who died had pneumonia that resulted in cyanosis – lack of oxygen in the blood.

This gave the skin its black colour. It is interesting that he shows a black rat on the body (red arrow).


It was not until Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) identified the causative organism – Yersinia pestis - during an outbreak of plague in Hong Kong in 1894, that the cause of plague was found. That it was transmitted by the rat flea was proven in 1898.

Further advances in wax modelling techniques

The modelling tradition was further advanced by Ercole Lelli (1702-1766), an anatomist and artist from Bologna. Lelli performed anatomical dissections, and then made plaster moulds of the dissection. From the moulds he crafted full sized bodies using human skeletons on which to lay fabric soaked in coloured wax. He then moulded the wax to the required form. Such full sized bodies were called écorchés


One of the most beautiful models in Bologna is a full sized female. For demonstration of the anatomy, there was a removable sheet of skin, then a removable sheet of muscle before coming to the abdominal cavity. This revealed the manner in which the body had been dissected.

The uterus is opened to show the presence of a foetus. The heart is opened to show its chambers and its valves. Head hair and a necklace was added. Such a preparation was called a ‘Venus model.’ (I saw a number of these in Italy, but this is by far the best.)

The Venus model in Bologna, which I photographed during a visit in 1986. In fact this one was made, not by Lelli, but by Clemente Susini (1754-1814) from Florence.

The wax modelling reached its peak in Florence from 1771 to 1893

Felice Fontana (1730-1805), was appointed to a physics position

in the Pitti Palace (the largest Museum in Florence) in 1765.

In 1771 Fontana suggested to the then ruler of Florence that it would be useful to have a wax modelling facility that would be able to produce specimens that students of Art, Medicine and other subjects could examine without having to gain anatomical knowledge by attending or performing anatomical dissections on decomposing bodies.


The building chosen for this project is still occupied by the Museum - La Specola. 

The entrance to the Museum of La Specola is in this narrow section of the Via Romana. The entrance door is obscured by the bus.

The River Arno is behind me, and the Pitti Palace is on the left.

Professor Gabriella Nesi from the University Hospital at Careggi, and Dr. Fausto Barbagallo, a Deputy Director of La Specola.

The Museum is on the next floor which is reached via the stairs just visible on the left.

Fontana established a School of wax modelling, and a wax modelling factory that flourished from 1771 to 1893.

The school employed a large staff that included, anatomists, artists, wax modellers  and various others, including a man to collect bodies and body parts from hospitals, and to arrange for burial of the parts after the dissections.

There was space to accommodate the models as they were being prepared, because each model was made by adding sections as the modeller went along. This process required a number of dissections in order to make one wax model. For example, 100 cadavers had to be partially dissected to make one model of a full sized body (an Écorché). A model like this took about a year to complete.


An indication of the scale of this operation is that the current La Specola Anatomical  Museum has 1300 wax models. 562 of them are in rosewood cabinets with gold bordering. 19 of these are life sized.


The Master Modeller in Fontana’s School was Clemente Susini (1754-1814). He was appointed in 1773 at the age of 19 years.

Some samples from La Specola Museum that I photographed in 2014.

A so-called ‘muscle man’ a full sized, standing wax model to show the anatomy of the muscles.

He is exhibited in a rosewood cabinet with a glass front. The ‘muscle men’ are all presented in an artistic pose.

Head and neck dissections done by other master modellers.

A head and neck model in Bologna made by Lelli. 

A head and neck model in the Josephinum in Vienna. This is one a number of specimens that were made in Fontana’s School in Florence.

They were purchased by the Habsburg monarch, Joseph II (1741-1790), when he established the Josephinum as a School in which to train doctors for his army.

Wax models of pathological conditions 

Fontana extended his wax modelling to include pathological conditions that were encountered at the University Hospital at Careggi, a suburb of Florence. The majority of these wax models were made by Egisto Tortoli (1829-1893).

The show piece of the Careggi collection is a man with very advanced scabies.

He holds pride of place  in a glass display case on the floor. The display cases on the wall behind him contain wax models of a variety of conditions,

The opposite wall contains an equal number of display cases of wax models of pathological conditions.

This model was made by the master modeller from La Specola, Luigi Calamai (1796-1851) in 1851. It is likely that the artist died as a result of being exposed to the mercury solution that was used for the preservation of the body.

Scabies – full body 

Scabies – head

Scabies – trunk

Scabies – legs

Images above show:

Skin, neurofibromatosis (left).

A piece of skin preserved in fixative in a cylindrical, glass display jar.

A wax model of neurofibromatosis(right).

The work of two other master moulageurs

Joseph Towne (1806-1879) - An English moulageur.

Images above  show:

Wax models made by Joseph Towne (1806-1879), the English moulageur (left).

He made the skeleton at the age of 17. It so impressed the surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper that he appointed Towne to the staff of Guy’s Hospital. Joseph remained in this position until his death. He made a number of wax models, including a head and neck model, and a number of dermatological models.

His head and neck model was made for the first  World Fair in London in 1851 (right). 

Images above show:

Wax model showing the brown colour of the skin in Addison’s Disease (left).

Post mortem specimen from a patient with Addison’s Disease. The atrophic adrenal (called a supra renal capsule at that time) is shown (red arrow)(right).

Towne worked for the three great physicians at Guy’s Hospital -

Richard Bright (1789-1858) – renal disease

Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) – Hodgkin’s disease 

Thomas Addison (1793-1860) – Addison’s disease


Addison was Curator of the pathology museum and he identified the clinical and pathological features of the disease that bears his name.

Jules Baretta (1834-1923) - A French moulageur.

Jules Baretta (1834-1923) was the master moulageur at the Dermatological Hospital – L’hôpital St. Louis in Paris. His models are so good that they are still used for teaching by the dermatologists in Paris. He created over 2,000 models. He was very secretive about his techniques.

Jules Baretta (1834-1923) a wax model he made of himself.

An example of one of Baretta’s models – dermatitis herpetiformis. 

Wax Modelling taken to other countries

The technique of wax modelling was taken to other countries by modellers visiting the living moulageurs, and/or their museums, and taking these skills back to their own countries. I will demonstrate Moscow, Russia; Tokyo and Nagasaki, Japan, Thailand, Zurich and England.


One of a number of panels of wax models in the Dermatology Department of the Moscow Medical Academy that I visited in 1999 (born 1924.

They are arranged behind lockable, wooden doors around the walls of a lecture theatre.


This panel consists mainly of manifestations of Leprosy.


The first Russian wax modeller went to Paris to learn the technique from Jules Baretta. He returned to Moscow and taught his son the technique. His son then taught his son, whose wife is the lady demonstrating this panel of wax models – Mrs. Fiveyskay.


Specimens in the Pathology Museum of the Tokyo University were made by the dermatologist Dr. Keizo Dohi (1866-1931).

He visited Vienna where he studied dermatology and the technique of wax modelling.

When he returned to Tokyo he made about 2,000 models. Some of these were distributed to other museums in Japan.

A basal cell carcinoma of the left eye.

Tuberculosis of the skin of the left hand.

Congenital syphilis



In the Medical School Museum of the University of Nagasaki, there are two cabinets of wax models. The name of the moulageur is not known for certain.

They may have been made by Keiso Dohi or one of his pupils.

Wax models in the Pathology Museum in Nagasaki.


There is a wax model museum that features skin diseases in The Dermatology Department of the University of Zurich. The moulageur, Mrs. Elzbeth Stoiber (born 1924 retried 1999) contributed about 1800 specimens, which made her the major contributor. The museum has become a tourist attraction in Zurich.

The wax model museum in the Dermatology Department in the University of Zurich.

Images above show:

An iodine deficient goitre (left). Iodine deficiency used to be very common among women living in the Swiss Alps. This was eradicated by introducing iodised salt into the diet.

Neurofibromatosis (right)

Gordon Museum Guy’s Hospital, London

Eleanor Crook (born 1966) is an English moulageur who has made a group of life size models to illustrate injuries from different Wars. I have chosen the soldier from WW1 who illustrates bullet and shrapnel injuries to legs, arms, hands and face. Not all of these would  necessarily have been present in a single soldier.


These moulages are displayed in the Gordon Museum, Guy’s Hospital, London.

Image (to the right)

Full sized wax model of injuries sustained by a soldier in WW1. This moulage is displayed in the Gordon Museum, Guy’s Hospital, London.


I would like to conclude this article with the Masterpiece of the Grand Master Moulageur – Clemente Susini (1754-1814).

The anatomy of the superficial lymphatics.

Anatomy of the superficial lymphatics. The écorché is lying in an artistic pose on a purple mattress inside a rosewood cabinet with reinforced glass windows Smaller anatomical specimens in rosewood cabinets with glass fronts, line the wall behind it.

Clemente Susini's - the superficial lymphatics.

Clemente Susini's - the superficial lymphatics.

Clemente Susini's - the superficial lymphatics.


I would like to thank the Curators of the various museums who kindly provided me with background information about the specimens and gave me permission to examine and photograph the specimens for the purpose of composing an article for publication.

My wife and daughter have kindly acted as proof readers.