Exploring the History of Medical Education in Florence, Italy

Mar 27, 2018

IC Staff

As a medical illustrator turned 3D biomedical artist, the anatomical wax collections at La Specola in Florence, Italy, were a true inspiration to see in person. Starting at the Interactive Commons only six months before our visit, I was fresh out of school and had a limited knowledge of the history of medical education.  Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomy drawings of the early 16th century, along with Frank Netter’s and Max Brodel’s 20th century medical illustrations are considered legendary.  However, three-dimensionally encompassing the human form, inside and out, has clearly been a problem for a long time. When studying the human body, 2D imagery can only go so far. Learning anatomy should be accompanied with not only 2D, but also accurate 3D representations. It is incredible to hear that this has been considered an issue for over 200 years.  Especially when my job, and that of my colleagues here at Case Western Reserve University, is to continue to solve this issue today.

Back in the 18th century, the Grand Duke of Tuscany sought to create a home for Florence’s scientific collections. These collections were started by the Medici family and many others around Florence. With the combined efforts of the Grand Duke and the Medici family, they created Museo Zoologico La Specola (better known as “La Specola”, or, “the observatory,” in Italian). While the collections consist widely of taxidermy, shells and minerals, La Specola is also home to world-famous anatomical wax models. Many of the models were created by modeling workshops and schools in Florence. La Specola’s final collection totals almost 600 human anatomy and comparative figures. The modelers took so much care with their art, and their passions clearly showed with the resulting pieces.

Out of all of the contributors to the history of the wax models, Felice Fontana made the most impact. Fontana founded the wax modeling school in Florence and opened the museum’s workshop in 1770. He was also an anatomist and wax modeler. His efforts sparked interest in others to learn human anatomy with wax models.  This led to hundreds of commissions for wax models to be used in hospitals and medical military schools across Europe. Fontana’s desire was to eliminate the use of human corpses for medical education with the use of his wax models.  At first glance this concept of replacing human models with wax seems peculiar.  We are attempting to meet the same goal with our HoloAnatomy curriculum now in 2018.  However, with wax workshops closing towards the end of the 19th century, Fontana’s goal was never fully met.

The anatomical accuracy of the models in La Specola amazed me.  Even with the research available in its time, these artists and anatomists were able to capture exquisite details of the human body.  With every model created, they studied up to 200 corpses. Still, so much has changed in the knowledge of human anatomy since the late 1700s.  Compared to then, we now have a much better understanding of many topics, including human embryonic development (see picture below).  Hopefully, with the technology and anatomical understanding we have today, we will be able to meet Fontana’s goal, through holograms, rather than wax.

IC Staff

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