Do you enjoy learning and walking through wax figure cabinets like Madame Tussauds? Well then, you might enjoy this article. It is about wax figures but not about those of Madame Tussauds. This story takes place before Madame Tussauds was even a thing.
The wholesome story of the emperor’s wax
The story of the wax figures I would like to tell you about is the story of two Austrian brothers, Emperor Joseph II. and his brother and succeeder Leopold II. They were born royals and as a result, ended up ruling over the Holy Roman Empire. The brothers, however, shared a very unusual interest. They were both fascinated by a certain kind of wax figures.
The brothers of the enlightenment era
The brother’s peculiar interest in wax figures started in the late 18th century. It was the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment. Driven by famous scholars like Immanuel Kant, Voltaire and John Locke, the movement lead to new ideas based on reasons and not superstitions, which at that time were common. Their ideals of liberty, tolerance and knowledge spread quickly throughout Europe.
Joseph II. and Leopold were enlightened rulers, and they supported these ideas. In fact, Joseph II. was so enthusiastic to reform the whole country based on these ideology, that he passed some 6000 edicts and another 11.000 laws in a short time. In this regard, there’s no wonder that people started rioting. The amount of these new edicts and laws were too confusing to be practical. Due to the riots and the overall disapproval, Joseph II. had to cancel most of the reforms.
As for Leopold, who was Archduke of Tuscany at that time, who became the first ruler to abolish the death penalty permanently. Besides their political agendas, the overall goal was to educate their people and make scientific knowledge as accessible as possible.
Hospitals, academies, museums
To accomplish this goal, museums and other educational institutions were built or first opened to the public. For instance, Joseph II. had a fondness for medical issues. Consequently, he established a new health care system by building the first Vienna General Hospital and Europe’s oldest accommodation for the mentally ill, called »Narrenturm«. To train prospective doctors and midwives for civil and military services, Emperor Joseph II. also founded a medico-surgical military academy in 1785. This place is now known as Josephinum, named after the Enlightenment Emperor himself.
Meanwhile in Tuscany, the younger brother, Archduke Leopold, showed great interest in natural history. The archduke’s enthusiasm led to establishing the first scientific museum of Europe, La Specola. Not only was it the first scientific museum ever, but it was also specifically created for the public to visit, which was a unique idea at that time. Fossils, stuffed animals, minerals, and many other scientific objects are displayed in the museum, but most of all anatomic wax models.
A lot of wax
For his new museum and its purpose to educate the public, Archduke Leopold commissioned some 1400 anatomical wax sculptures. Furthermore, the archduke had the project supervised by the Who’s Who of Tuscany’s science world, physicist Felice Fontana (discoverer of the water gas shift reaction) and anatomist Paolo Mascagni, (first complete description of the lymphatic system). In Addition, the most recent scientific methods were used for this project and the wax figures were created based on observations during autopsies.
When Joseph II. visited his brother in Florence, he was in awe by said wax models. They would be perfect for his newly founded medical military academy, Josephinum. So, the emperor ordered another 1192 anatomical wax figures right away. But here’s the catch. They were all produced in Florence in the 1780s. As you can imagine, the late 18th century was not equipped with the transport systems we know today but consisted mainly of horse-drawn carriages and mules. This means that each wax figure had to be transported on the back of a mule from Italy over the Alps to Austria. Ever since these sculptures are displayed in the original rosewood cases in Josephinum to this day.
It’s not Tussauds
I can still remember the first time I was at the Josephinum. It was for my anatomy drawing class which I attended some years ago. I remember the intense smell of the old wooden cases that has been there for more than 200 years. I remember being a bit spooked by the weird wax figures that were exhibited there. One of them was a sculpture of a young, blond-haired lady with a pearl necklace, exposing all her intestines.
The Josephinum is not well known among tourists, as most people prefer going to Madame Tussauds instead. Earlier I’ve mentioned, that the wax museum of Marie Tussaud didn’t exist when Josephinum’s wax models were first exhibited. Some years later however, Tussauds work began drawing attention when she created wax figures depicting the victims of French revolution. Most famous among them: the beheaded queen Marie Antoinette, Joseph’s, and Leopold’s youngest sister. But that’s for another story.
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