Recently I made my first ever visit to the city of Florence. I didn't bother to go to the Uffizi or the Accademia or the Palatine, but I did see a wax model of a dissected woman that gave me more pleasure than any Renaissance painting possibly could have. The model was on display at La Specola, a museum that holds the largest collection of anatomical waxworks in the world, produced between 1770 and 1850 in the workshops of great sculptors including Clemente Susini and Gaetano Giulio Zumbo. I toured La Specola with a dropped jaw, but what made the day even more revelatory was that I inadvertently curated a perfect two-part exhibition for myself, beginning at La Specola and ending ten minutes across the Arno at the Palazzo Strozzi's ‘From Kandinsky to Pollock: The Art of the Guggenheim Collections’.
In theory, the waxworks at La Specola are not artworks; they are educational tools. 'It will be of infinite use in providing a perfect knowledge of all organs of the human body, allowing all and sundry to learn without any feeling or disgust or hesitation the more intricate details of anatomy,' declared Felice Fontana, the first director of the museum. So you're presented with torsos butterflied, heads cross-sectioned, glands under glass like chokers in a jewellery shop. It's more than you ever wanted to know about your own insides.
One of the things that makes these waxworks so dazzling is that their creators clearly couldn't help but revel in their mastery of this very specific art. 'Italian waxes are imbued with a real sense of beauty,' writes the art historian Roberta Ballestriero, in contrast to 'specimens from northern countries such as the UK, the Netherlands or Germany [which] are usually more realistic, almost brutal, preferring anatomical accuracy rather than artistic flair.' If the sculptors of La Specola had really just wanted to reproduce the human body as accurately as possible, their work would not have developed any formalist qualities, and yet you can detect an exuberant local style jostling against the utilitarian demands of the job. The waxworks are not merely mimetic objects; they are tours de force of texture, colour, composition and imagery. Susini's full-scale women seem at once Marianic and erotic as they recline guts akimbo in their vitrines, but any lone brainstem or kidney remains a spectacle in itself.
And as if that wasn't enough, the waxworks anticipate modern art by over a hundred years.
This occurred to me while I was still at the House of Wax, but it wasn't confirmed for me until, a number of gelatos later, I arrived at the Palazzo Strozzi. In the Guggenheim Collection show, I found specific works that, at least on that particular day, felt like developments of certain methods that the anatomists had pioneered almost by accident.
A human head, disordered both in space (opened up down the middle to reorient its planes) and time (life and death existing simultaneously); compare this to Picasso's Half-Length Portrait of a Man in a Striped Jersey (1939). Veins, nerves and tendons tangled together into something that resembles a punky echinoderm; compare this to Laurence Vail's untitled assemblage of fabric and wire. A hip-joint abstracted down to a study in beautiful contours; compare this to Brâncusi's Bird in Space (1932-40). The blank surface of an artificial material coaxed into revealing a texture that looks gunky and wounded: compare this to Alberto Burri's Bianco B (1965). An old-fashioned display case in which assorted model eyeballs are playfully but meticulously arranged around a centrepiece of the eye in its orbit: think of Joseph Cornell's work, represented here by Untitled (Medici Princess) (1955). A man flayed almost to his bones, waving at you cheerfully: think of the Surrealists, represented here by Victor Brauner's The Surrealist (1947).
I'm not saying that these ideas didn’t exist in art before 1770. All of them did, going back tens of thousands of years, probably. But I don't know where else you would find, in one place, Modernism previewed in so many different aspects by people who weren't even supposed to be making art. With such a strikingly direct comparison available, I honestly think I still would have been overwhelmed by the discovery even if I hadn't been hopped up on fior di latte and tripe sandwiches. Now I just hope that one day, in the cobwebbed cellars of some remote palazzo or derelict hospital, another collection of waxworks might be discovered. Smaller, but even more visionary, containing within them the seeds of Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism, Post-Internet...
I spent the day in Florence because at the moment I'm in residence at the Santa Maddalena Foundation for Writers and Botanists, some twelve miles east of the city. This is where the novelist Rupert Thomson wrote parts of his acclaimed novel Secrecy (2013) about the early Sicilian wax artist Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, whose tableux 'the Theatres of Death' are on display in La Specola. Frankly, I'm a little annoyed he nabbed the subject before I even heard about it.
Anyway, after visiting the Palazzo Strozzi, I had a drink at the patio bar opposite with Santa Maddalena's proprietor Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori, who had just come from a meeting at the museum. The Baronessa used to be the Italian gallerist of several of the major artists in the Guggenheim Collection show, and after she listened to my theory (tolerantly, even though she was actually there for this stuff) she told me that her friend Alberto Burri was himself a surgeon before he was an artist. That night, when I showed her some of the pictures I had taken of the waxworks, she said she couldn't believe I could stand to eat tripe in tomato sauce so soon after visiting the museum. I admitted that I really like organs. 'To eat or to look at?' she asked. I shrugged: maybe both? 'If you have a girlfriend, I feel sorry for her,' said the Baronessa.